The Current

Breakthrough in human embryo research sparks ethics debate

Two teams of scientists did something never seen before when they grew human embryos in a petri dish, which they kept alive for a record 13 days.
This microscope photo from The Rockefeller University shows a human embryo that was kept alive for 13 days, which could help extend the current 14-day cap on growing them. (Gist Croft, Alessia Deglincerti, Ali H. Brivanlou/The Rockefeller University via AP)

Earlier this year, two teams of scientists from Britain and the U.S. witnessed something unprecedented.

The scientists were growing human embryos in petri dishes and were able to keep them alive for a record 13 days. This is the longest that human embryos have survived outside the womb; prior to now the average survival time was one week.

While this breakthrough is momentous, it also raises ethical questions as it supports the opinion of some scientists that the current 14 day limit for studies with human embryos should be extended.

For me, this is one of the most exciting moments of my career ... I can compare it [to] looking at the first images of the Hubble telescope.- Dr. Ali Brivanlou, the lead researcher for the U.S. team

Dr. Ali Brivanlou, the lead researcher for the U.S. research team, believes this 13-day development is important for future progress in medicine.

"You can generate a whole organism starting with one embryonic stem cell — this is a magical property," he says.

John Harris, the Lord Alliance professor of bioethics, and director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester, explains that the 14-day cap was initially set for human embryo research because it marks the beginnings of the central nervous system. However, he believes the benefits of what may come are worth extending the time allowed for research.

On the other hand, Margaret Somerville, the Samuel Gale Chair in Law, as well as a professor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, does not believe that research using human embryos should happen at all.

I see the human embryo as the beginning of every human life. We're all ex-embryos and I think that all of our lives deserve the same respect throughout their whole continuation.- Margaret Somerville

Francoise Baylis, Canada Research Chair in bioethics and philosophy at Dalhousie University, disagrees, to some extent, with both Harris and Sommerville. She says that if we are to have this discussion, it can't be rooted in the "arbitrariness" of set time guidelines—rather each study must be approached on a case by case basis.  

What do you think about the use of human embryos in scientific research? 

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This segment was produced by The Current's Marc Apollonio.

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