July 10, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Why we shouldn’t view the human embryo as a gizmo even in the CRISPR era

My first job in science was as a lab technician at UCSD School of Medicine and a big part of that job was growing cells called HUVECs or human umbilical vein endothelial cells. We isolated and grew the HUVECs from umbilical cords that we retrieved from the maternity ward of the UCSD hospital, which first entailed getting the placenta and attached umbilical cord as our starting material.

Some people viewed this material as “gross”, but as a newbie scientist I was kind of in awe of the whole process and it made me think about human development starting with human embryos and leading up to birth of babies in a new way. Those HUVECs were integral to proper human development and it was cool even if challenging to grow them.

Now about 25 years later, after working with dozens of human cell types, I have been thinking more about human embryos the last few years, especially as relates to CRISPR, even though I don’t do research on them in my lab.

How should we view a human embryo, both overall societally and within a scientific context?human embryo CRISPR

Is a human embryo just the same as any other research material?

If a lab is working with a 100-cell human embryo is there some kind of equivalency between that and say the dish next to it in that same lab with a cluster of 100 human stem cells? What about 100 human skin cells grown in a lab?

Is a human cell just a human cell?

I don’t think so on either account. However, at times it seems like some research on human embryos (and commentary on it by scientists, philosophers, or others voicing their opinions) reflects a certain nonchalance about it or a sense that no special care or thought was or should be given to this kind of work. I call this a “gizmo” mentality about human embryos. That these are just some “thing” that can be fiddled with and you can always get another one. I believe that kind of mindset should be avoided.

For context, I’m not a particularly religious person so that is not driving my viewpoint here. Also, I personally do not believe that human embryos are people and I’m not a fan of the personhood movement. At the other extreme, human embryos also are not just a collection of random cells either. They aren’t a gizmo.

In my view, research on human embryos, such as introduction of CRISPR into them for gene editing or some other kind of larger scale genetic modification like a “knockout”, requires extra consideration. There should be some advance contemplation about it and ideally consultation with a bioethicist. These extra steps and planning via researchers asking themselves questions and having discussions with others should start early and before you begin the actual embryo research. Better to ask questions early than too late.

For example, where will the human embryos come from and where did the gametes come from to make them?

Were gamete donors or embryo donors properly consented?

Are the embryos “leftovers” from IVF or are they being made purposefully just for research? The latter requires more consideration.

Why are you doing the human embryo research and is there a rock-solid justification for this work? Could you not answer the same research question using mouse embryos for example? You couldn’t address the same research challenge with just stem cells in a dish in the lab?

These aren’t easy questions, but they are important.

Since human gametes and embryos made from them require human donors (and there are risks to donors) and have the potential if implanted to make a human being, you should be extra careful in experimental design, biostats, etc. as well. Also, you need to think in advance about what you will do with the experimental embryos once the project is done if some are to be frozen.

This is all a lot more complicated than just experimenting on every day human cells in a dish, but the extra steps are needed because again human embryos are not your average group of 100 cells. Going the extra mile to do human embryo research properly lowers risks to others and to the research field.

Further, consider how your work might be portrayed in the media, especially if you have some future clinical intent with your human embryo project in years to come such as trying to prevent a genetic disease. Being proactive and thoughtful can help you avoid the risk of being at the center of some controversy. If you have some long-range clinical intent for your work, you should also be very cautious in publicly discussing that and always discuss existing alternatives like PGD for prevention of genetic diseases in future offspring.

It’s encouraging to see that some labs publishing high-profile human embryo papers recently have apparently given it quite a bit of thought and there has been advance institutional review, but some other reports out there and/or statements in the media from those doing such research or individuals commenting on it are concerning. There are clearly some important gaps that need to be addressed in how this work is approached and discussed. Some gizmo mentality can creep in at times in discussing actual human embryo research.

We should also be conscious that as human embryo work such as that using CRISPR becomes more commonplace, as it seems to be trending lately, that doesn’t change the core questions and bioethical concerns. Just because someone for example has CRISPR’d 500 human embryos doesn’t mean those embryos should be viewed as commonplace research materials. Extraordinary mindfulness is always going to be needed for this kind of research even if it becomes more commonly conducted.

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