Stem cell-derived human embryo models – an ethical perspective

The rise of stem cell-derived human embryo models has revived ethical discussions surrounding human embryo research. PREPARE researchers Megan Munsie (reNEW Melbourne PI) and Nienke de Graeff (reNEW Leiden AI) were joined by Lien de Proost (LUMC) to discuss new and recurring ethical questions on this topic in two recent publications. The invited commentaries, published in Nature Methods and PET Bionews, emphasize the need for a continued discussion concerning the use of human embryos and stem cell-derived embryo models in research.

Research on human embryo models has traditionally been surrounded by ethical dilemmas which has resulted in regulations in many countries across the globe. The rise of stem cell-derived human embryo models, such as gastruloids and blastoids, has the potential to vastly improve our understanding of human development. At the same time, these models also raise new dilemmas around the use of these models and the need to revisit the ethical implications of human embryo research and how it is regulated.

‘Ceçi n’est pas un embryon’?
The first commentary, published in a special ‘Method of the Year 2023’ edition of Nature Methods , discusses ethical and regulatory questions related to the use of stem cell-derived human embryo models. Prof Munsie stated, “As these models become more and more similar to human embryos derived from sperm-egg fertilisation, questions arise on what rules should apply and what, if any, limits should be imposed”. The authors explored how new and old ethical questions are intricately intertwined and discussed the significant international disparities in embryo regulation. “Current national regulations should be reevaluated in light of this emerging technology,” says A/Prof De Graeff. Munsie concludes: “Continued discussions within the scientific community and beyond on what stem cell-derived embryo models do and do not represent are crucial to assure regulations stay aligned with rapid developments in the field of stem cell research”.

28-day rule for embryo research in The Netherlands
In the second commentary, published in PET Bionews, De Graeff and De Proost reflect on a recent report from the Dutch Health Council. In this report, The Council recommends changes to current regulations concerning embryo research in The Netherlands. These proposed changes include both an extension of the 14-day limit for embryo research to 28 days, and the incorporation of stem cell-based embryo models into these regulations. The report is an important step towards a revised policy on embryo research in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, the authors underscore some issues that remain to be addressed for adequate inclusion of stem cell-derived models in these regulations. De Graeff: “The report raises questions important questions regarding the balancing of policy, practice, and the public perspective, including how societal perspectives should impact policymaking. It also brings up questions about whether and to what extent integrated embryo models should be considered morally and/or legally equivalent to human embryos derived from fertilization, and practical challenges in applying the proposed 28-day rule to embryo models. We advocate for a constructive dialogue between policy-makers and stem cell researchers to reflect on these practical consequences.”

Reprogrammed neurons may fool you!

Associate Professor Agnete Kirkeby, from reNEW Copenhagen, has published the paper Forced LMX1A expression induces dorsal neural fates and disrupts patterning of human embryonic stem cells into ventral midbrain dopaminergic neurons, in Stem Cell Reports.