'Sometimes, news collide and generate fascinating questions'

Sometimes, news collide and generate fascinating questions. Like last week, when reading in the MIT Technology Review (see below) that scientists in Israel “have grown a mouse embryo in an artificial womb for as long as 11 or 12 days, about half the animal’s natural gestation period”.

This advance, being part “of an explosion of new techniques and ideas for studying early development”, is described in the journal Nature which, in the same edition, reports a leap forward, by two other research groups, in creating “artificial human embryos”, which they grew for about 10 days in the lab. ”Several kinds of artificial models of embryos have been described before, writes the Review, but those described today are among the most complete, because they possess the cells needed to form a placenta.”

Some days before, another article, published in the magazine IEEE Spectrum, enlightens the work done by the GenomeProject-write consortium, which focuses on the development of technologies for the synthesis and testing of artificial genomes of many different species of microbes, plants, and animals, including the human genome. It’s team is now developing a computer-aided design (CAD) program, with the aim to design a new living organism as easily as one can automate the design a new integrated circuit for microelectronics. 

Once such a CAD for genomics exists, it is not to exclude that a full genome of a living organism could be designed (including the one of a human being), based on the current knowledge but possibly including special features! And that this genome is then inserted into a living cell for it to multiply and develop. In 2010 already, the genomics pioneer Craig Venter managed to synthesize the full genetic code of bacteria and to implant it into another unique cell. This breakthrough has been achieved using... bacteria - with a human embryonic stem cell, it would be extremely more complex. But nowadays, with the much more advanced technologies mentioned before, and the possibility to rewrite and insert maybe not a full genome but some genes only, the perspectives raise huge questions, starting around ethics.

Fortunately, for the last 40 years, a rule (which is a law in some countries) forbids any scientist to allow human embryos to develop in their labs beyond the limit of 14 days. Now, as revealed last week too by the MIT Technology Review, a key scientific body, the International Society for Stem Cell Research, “has prepared draft recommendations to move such research out of a category of “prohibited” scientific activities and into a class of research that can be permitted after ethics review and depending on national regulations”. This for reasons such as improving in vitro fecondation or exploring the genetics engineering of humans. These new guidelines haven’t been officially released yet - they should be this spring. But one thing is sure: the lines in human genomic research are moving fast, faster than thought.

This opinion piece was published as part of the Science & Diplomacy Reads section of Geneva Solutions’ Science and Technology newsletter, in partnership with GESDA. Sign up to the newsletter here.