23 January 2017
ByAppeared in BioNews 885
'We know so much about development of many other model organisms – fruit flies, worm – and we don't know much about development of our own embryos... This is all really a black box of development.'
Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz of Cambridge University, the scientist who recently managed to keep human embryos alive for a record-breaking 13 days in the lab, was talking to Dr Kat Arney in a recent podcast episode 'All human life is here' by the The Naked Scientists.
Together with Sarah Norcross of the Progress Educational Trust, they discussed the current UK ban on researching human embryos in the lab for longer than 14 days.
While the interviews were fairly short, they were excellent summaries with decent explanations of the basics of embryology, the significance of embryological research, and the impact of the 14-day ban in embryo research.
Professor Zernicka-Goetz explained some of the science behind embryonic development and described how her team managed to keep embryos alive for 13 days outside the body of a mother. She also discussed the UK law that bans the growth of human embryos in the lab for more than 14 days, and how this law impacts on her research. Could her team's methods keep embryos alive for longer then 13 days in the lab? The team won't know just how long they can sustain a human embryo until the ban is lifted as they are required to destroy all embryos by the 14th day.
This interview concludes with the question: 'What are the potential benefits of changing the law to permit research on embryos for longer than 14 days?' According to Zernicka-Goetz, we know very little about basic human embryonic development, and being able to understand what makes embryos develop correctly or incorrectly could have significant implications for improving IVF or treating diseases that begin at this stage.
Because interview was only about four minutes long, this did not allow for much elaboration on points I would like to have heard more about – such as details on how embryonic research past 14 days could improve IVF or disease – but she provided a solid explanation of the significance of this research and why researchers are interested in working with embryos for longer than 14 days.
The second interview, with Sarah Norcross, focused on whether or not we should extend the 14-day rule for human embryo research.
Norcross outlined some of the ethical concerns related to extending the 14-rule, especially in tandem with the potential to experiment with genome editing in the UK. For example, would extending the 14-day rule be used to study embryonic development, or could it lead to experiments on human embryos involving genome editing? Would experiments be used therapeutically, or might it lead to human enhancements?
This discussion of ethical issues was brief, and focused on ethical issues that overlap with genome editing rather than with those pertaining strictly to embryological research (such as questions about the moral status of human embryos). But she elaborated on the question of what would actually be needed for such a change in law to come about. She argued that the public would have to be well informed on the topic, and scientists would have to provide strong arguments for why they wish to pursue this kind of research.
For me, this podcast was all too brief. The Naked Scientists included an interview with science writer and geneticist Adam Rutherford to discuss his new book, 'A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived', which covered discoveries in the field of paleoanthropology. 'Humans are much more complex than we thought they were,' observed Rutherford. 'We're even more complex in terms of our genome than we are in terms of our behaviour. And that's exciting.'
While this was an interesting topic on its own, it had little relevance that I could fathom to the discussion on embryology. Had the producers left it out, there would have been time for a slightly more in-depth discussion of human embryo research and the 14-day rule, which I would have welcomed. As it stands, the podcast is a worthwhile – if brief – introduction to the subject.