Fertility experts hail breakthrough on lab-grown human embryos
Fertility experts have hailed the recent breakthrough in the number of days for growing human embryos in the lab, keeping them alive and active beyond the stage when they would naturally implant in a mother’s womb.
The latest work was published in Nature and Nature Cell Biology.Before now, the longest that human embryos had previously been grown in the lab was nine days, though seven days was far more common.
However, the feat, which is being hailed as a milestone in the field, has sparked ethical, cultural, legal and religious debate and has put scientists into direct conflict with a decades-old law that prohibits donated embryos from being grown in the lab for more than 14 days.
In groundbreaking research, scientists invented a thick soup of nutrients, which mimics conditions in the womb, and keeps an embryo alive for days longer than it could previously survive without being implanted into a mother.
The procedure used to grow the embryos, developed at Cambridge and Rockefeller University in New York, United States (U.S.), promises scientists fresh new insights into early human development; the causes of early stage miscarriages, and ways to produce stem cells to treat diseases. But the work has also ignited a vigorous debate around the laws that govern human embryo studies.
Some experts said the latest work by United States (U.K.) and U.S. was well within the limit – the embryos were grown for 13 days to the critical time when balls of cells are poised to start the process of sculpting the human form – the achievement has led to calls to revisit the legal limit .
The 14-day rule is enshrined in law in at least a dozen countries, the U.K. included, and while extending the allowed period for embryo research would be welcomed by some scientists, the move would be resisted by many, including religious groups already opposed to embryo research.
But some scientists have now suggested that the deadline should be extended to allow for more research into the development of embryos.Pioneer of In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF)/Test Tube Baby, Prof. Oladapo Ashiru, told The Guardian that the new landmark will open a huge opportunity in infertility, improving assisted conception methods, and in early miscarriage and disorders of pregnancy.
Ashiru who is the medical director of Medical Art Centre (MART) Maryland, Ikeja, Lagos, said the new discovery would be very useful for stem cell research to be used in various medical therapies apart from being a valuable tool to teach embryology to medical students. He said it could reduce the teaching time from the current 13 to 20 semester hours to five.
Ashiru, told The Guardian: “This is an issue that would definitely come up. A number of researchers have been making attempts to grow embryo beyond day five the blastocyst stage. Scientists and Clinical Embryologists welcomed the report of Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, who led the U.K. research at Cambridge University and her colleagues from and Rockefeller University in New York.
“Until this development human embryos have been developed up to the 9th day. Now moving beyond this to the 14th days is obviously as reported a significant landmark. This is at the point when the embryo is implanted into the womb and the ‘Closing plug’ has sealed it inside the womb! Obviously it must attract a lot of debate both the pros and the cons.
“In my view when the 14th day rule was made most centers were transferring embryos at day three the eight-cell embryo. Today many centers including Nigeria are now able to transfer day five embryos termed the blastocysts. Consequently it is clear that as technology develops new horizons are unfolded and they give rise to debates of pros and cons before acceptance.
“About 42 years ago the news of an ectopic pregnancy from IVF led to several vilification of the Scientists Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe. They felt so bad with the various criticisms and the U.S. even put a ban on IVF. Two years later a baby was born from the techniques and today millions of babies have been born. To crown the reversal Robert Edwards was awarded a noble prize for Medicine in 2010…”
Leader of the U.K. research at Cambridge University, Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, said: “We can now, for the very first time, study human development at this very critical stage of our lives, at the time of implantation.”
In the UK and many other countries, scientists are allowed to study spare, donated IVF embryos, but they can only be grown in the lab for 14 days. After that, the embryos must be destroyed. The 14-day stage marks the point when the individuality of an embryo is assured, because they can no longer split into twins. At about the same time, embryos form what is called the “primitive streak”, a faint band of cells that starts to distinguish the head from the tail.