The news spread around the world that will no doubt forever change the field of experiments with human embryos.
On the 26th of May, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) announced the removal of an important limitation in human embryo research. Now scientists are not subject to restrictions on the life expectancy of the embryo, experiments on which they are conducting. Is this innovation ethical?
We are talking about the famous “rule of 14 days”, which forbade the growth of human embryos for more than two weeks after fertilization of an egg with a sperm.
Embryos are of such great interest to scientists, because at the early stages of development of the embryo, the cells of its body are still undifferentiated. This means that they can turn into cells of any tissue in the body. It is these cells that are called stem cells, and although they are found even in an adult organism, embryonic stem cells are of the greatest scientific value.
Removing the restriction, on the one hand, provides more opportunities for stem cell research, as well as studying the development of the embryo and intrauterine diseases. But at the same time, the lack of preliminary public discussion of the lifting of such a ban led to sharp criticism from some scientists and human rights activists. (And this is probably just the beginning of the process.)
What is the essence of the claims? On May 26, 2021, the society decided to consider each study with human embryos separately in order to determine the allowable duration of the experiment individually.
That is, today, apart from several stages of rigorous consideration of each specific case, within the framework of ISSCR there is no longer a time limit on the duration of studies with the participation of human embryos.
In many ways, this decision was made because stem cell research has moved to a higher level and has become much more complex. Often, scientists do not even use human embryos: they use “embryo-like structures” for research , which are not capable of becoming a full-fledged organism.
Another innovation: the new ISSCR rules now include conditions for the use of the so-called mitochondrial replacement therapy.
Also, according to the updated rules, editing the genes of human embryos, as well as sperm and eggs during in vitro fertilization (IVF), is considered too risky.
This decision is related to a high-profile case that occurred in 2018, when the first genetically modified children were born in China.
The “14-day rule” was proposed back in 1979 and was legalized by some countries at the state level. At the same time, in some states, including Germany and Russia, the use of human embryos in research is completely prohibited.
But in general, the “14-day rule” has been recognized as the international standard for human stem cell research.
The threshold of two weeks was chosen because the nervous system begins to form in the embryo around this time. It is assumed that from this “age” the embryo is able to perceive the surrounding world to one degree or another. Accordingly, the principles of humanity do not allow any further manipulation with it, and then destruction.
(Which, however, does not prevent humanity from experimenting with animals that, like us, feel pain, suffer and die for the sake of science.)
Some researchers believe that abolishing the “14-day rule” was too hasty. Scientists still have a huge field for research within the first two weeks of embryo development, and not all researchers see the point in increasing the period for experiments.