• The Ethics of Synthetic Embryology: A Blessing or a Curse?
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02 Dec 2020
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The Ethics of Synthetic Embryology: A Blessing or a Curse?

“Should human embryo-like structures be considered human embryos? If not, do they resemble human embryos so closely that they should still be due some moral and legal protection? If so, to what extent and in virtue of what exactly? Are there particular stages or events in embryogenesis from which synthetic embryologists should always steer away?”

Hi! My name is Ana Pereira Daoud and I am a PhD researcher at Maastricht University, where I have been working on the ethical ramifications of synthetic embryology for the past two years. I look forward to updating you regularly on the specific ethical conundrums of my work, but I would like to begin by expanding on two general questions: what is synthetic embryology and why should you care about it?

Synthetic embryology is an emerging field of research devoted to understanding (human) embryonic development by creating synthetic models – so called ‘embryo-like structures’ (ELS) – from stem cells. These cells are subsequently clustered and engineered in certain ways to create structures that look and behave similarly to early peri-implantation embryos. ELS are reminiscent of organoids both in the culturing methods used and the ways in which they can contribute to precision and regenerative medicine, e.g., by allowing high-throughput genetic testing and drug screening. Unlike organoids, which can only perform simplified organ-specific tasks, ELS provide the additional advantage of being full organisms. They are enabling the study of diseases that affect multiple organ systems, the harvesting of more reliably generated organoids, and fundamental research into (human) embryonic development, during which most human etiologies rise.

Whereas these aims are understandably worth pursuing, the reasonable expectation that ELS will continue to improve and resemble human embryos ever more faithfully raises the question whether or not they should be conferred (at least some degree of) moral and legal status. Leaving this question uncharted, could lead to tricky situations in which the field of synthetic embryology is limited without valid reasons or allowed to develop without valid policies. Addressing this question will thus be key for the field of synthetic embryology to develop within the parameters of responsible innovation, and the topic on which I will continue updating you.


1Unlike specialized (or ‘adult’) cells, which can only generate one cell type, stem cells are capable of specializing into multiple cell types. For simplicity, we distinguish between two kinds of stem cells: (1) those from which the conceptus’ tissues and organs develop (embryonic or induced pluripotent stem cells) and (2) those from which the placenta and other extra-embryonic membranes involved with the protection and nutrition of the conceptus develop (trophoblast stem cells).
2At present, ELS are predominantly cultured from animal stem cells. Although the first steps towards human ELS have been reported, these structures are not (yet) sufficiently refined to replace the use of human embryos in specific avenues of study.
3Organoids are 3D stem cell-based structures that resemble the physiology and morphology of specific organs.

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