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Science is evolving, but are our ethics keeping up?

New scientific developments are challenging long established ethical guidelines around the use of embryos, or embryo-like cells.

Recent breakthroughs in science and medicine have demonstrated that we may be much closer to being able to artificially grow and replace human organs than ever before. 

But, those developments are also challenging long established ethical guidelines around the use of embryos, or embryo-like cells.

Today, science writer and contributor to The Monthly Elizabeth Finkel on the latest scientific breakthroughs, and the argument that our ethics need to evolve alongside our knowledge of the world.

 

Guest: Science writer and contributor to The Monthly Elizabeth Finke.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music starts]

 

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

Recent breakthroughs in science and medicine have demonstrated that we may be much closer to being able to artificially grow and replace human organs than ever before. But, those developments are also challenging long established ethical guidelines around the use of embryos, or embryo-like cells. Today, science writer and contributor to The Monthly Elizabeth Finkel on the latest scientific breakthroughs, and the argument that our ethics need to evolve alongside our knowledge of the world.

 

[Theme Music ends]

 

RUBY:

Elizabeth, you're a former biochemist and you've written extensively about stem cell research and embryo science... If you were to begin explaining the importance of those fields to me, where would you begin?

 

ELIZABETH:

So I think most people have heard of stem cells, embryonic stem cells. They're like this magic putty that you can mould into any kind of body tissue. So many, many of the diseases we suffer as human beings are because body tissues fail. So when a child has early onset diabetes. It's because the cells of that child's pancreas have died off and that child is now dependent on insulin injections for life and, you know, they don't control their blood sugar perfectly, which is what insulin does. And they end up with various vascular diseases, diseases of the heart and the eyes because of that inability to perfectly control their blood sugar. So in 1998, researchers made a breakthrough, and that was they learnt how to make human embryonic stem cells. 

 

RUBY:

Mm and why was that so significant Elizabeth?

 

ELIZABETH:

What could you do with human embryonic stem cells? So, as I say, these are kind of magic, putty. These are the cells that the embryo instructs to form every tissue of the body. Well, if we have these cells now in the lab, we can learn to instruct them to make exactly what we want, for instance, pancreatic cells to treat a child with diabetes so that instead of having to inject themselves with insulin, we give them this artificial pancreas and away they go. And 20 years later, it's- it's almost there.

 

RUBY:

Mmm so science has come a long way in the past few decades - and especially so in the last few years. In the last few months we’ve seen a whole lot of headlines about this - can you tell me about that?

 

ELIZABETH:

Yeah, well, I myself thought, am I seeing this in headlines or is this the latest Netflix sci-fi line up? So we've had growing human embryos from skin cells... 

 

Archival Tape -- Newsreader 1 

"Well, in a major scientific breakthrough, researchers have developed a technique to potentially create models of human embryos from skin skin cells. The international team…”
 

 

ELIZABETH:

...We've had human monkey embryos...

 

Archival Tape -- Newsreader 2

“...Serious ethical issues are being raised after it emerged that US and Chinese scientists have implanted human cells into monkey embryos…”

 

ELIZABETH:

...We've had foetuses gestated in incubators...

 

Archival Tape -- Newsreader 3

“For the first time scientists have grown mouse embryos in an artificial uterus…” 

 

ELIZABETH:

I mean, it just throws up all the tropes; Island of Doctor Moreau, um, Brave New World and the London Hatchery for growing human embryos.

 

Archival Tape -- José Polo

“My name is José Polo, I’m the head of the Polo Group. And my lab works on understanding how cells become other cells and what makes a cell that cell…”

 

ELIZABETH:

José Polo has been working with stem cells. He actually generates his stem cells starting from reprogrammed skin cells. And he almost inadvertently has ended up making structures that look like human embryos, they look like human blastocysts, these embryos that are at the same stage just before you implant them in a human womb. 

 

Archival Tape -- José Polo

“An iBlastoid is a model of the human early embryo, also known as blastocyst, that we generated in the lab using human skin cells, and it will allow us to study the early steps of human development.”

 

ELIZABETH:

So he published a paper on them in March showing that they in many important respects, carry all the same structures that a normal human embryo does. And that's important because he wants to use them as models to study this very mysterious period of human development when the embryo is forming its body plan. So José Polo, once he saw that these embryos he'd created looked like real embryos started to worry and he sent off a letter or an email to the National Health and Medical Research Council and said “Look, I've created these things that look and smell like embryos. What do you think?” And they said, “you must stop working on them. You need to get a licence like anybody else who wants to work with human embryos”. So according to our agency, the National Health and Medical Research Council, José Polo's embryoids are captured by embryo legislation and he's no longer allowed to work on them. 

 

RUBY:

Ok so we have this Australian researcher who has made, what sounds like a fairly significant scientific breakthrough, but he can’t pursue it. His work is being restrained by the government?

 

ELIZABETH:

That’s correct. So that's where we get to the pointy end here. You know, Australia's laws at the moment are preventing José Polo from continuing his research on these blastoids, they're important for basic research in IVF. Um, people would also like to study them because for instance, we know COVID infects embryo's, it seems to affect embryo's because we know pregnancy outcomes in women who've been infected by COVID can be compromised. So people would like to have a modelled embryo system to study COVID infections. So, you know, there are already people clamouring to use José Polo's cell system to be able to study the effects of Covid in early pregnancy, but that sort of research is halted at the moment.

 

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment. 

 

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RUBY:

Elizabeth, a team of scientists in Australia have been working developing blastoids which are human embryos made out of skin cells originally. But now they’ve actually had to abandon their research. Can you tell me why that is?

 

ELIZABETH:

So one of the restrictions that was put in place by the legislation relates to the culturing of embryos and this is where we get to the 14 day rule. So a committee based in the U.K. in 1984 had designated this 14 day rule, which says that if you are culturing embryos for various reasons for research, that you should obey this 14 day rule. 

 

RUBY:

Mm, so this rule that says that you can’t culture an embryo for more than 14 days, where does it come from?

 

ELIZABETH:

This was sort of in the aftermath of the early days of IVF research. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Scientist

“So all these things were breakthrough, exciting... but also came with a lot of criticism from those groups who really felt this shouldn’t be the way you do things.”

 

ELIZABETH:

When people were just starting to be able to culture human embryos and people started to be alarmed, well. “You're growing human embryos in the culture dish, where could this lead?” Most of us think of the sci-fi trope ahead of, you know, anything else, the reality of what's going on. But people were alarmed. So this British committee had to put a limit on it. 

 

Archival Tape -- Mary Warnock

“It’s simple, everyone can count to 14.Because by that time, we decided that this was a matter not just for medical guidelines, but for legislation and the law above all things need certainty.”

 

ELIZABETH:

But arguably, this was a philosophical limit and it was fairly arbitrary. And so I think now we've reached another point. The technology is now butting up against this 14 day rule and saying, well, let's examine this again in terms of what are the benefits we might gain by allowing people now because they can, to culture embryos to 14 days and possibly beyond? So what could we gain from doing that? 

 

RUBY:

Mm but are there risks to removing this 14 day rule? You spoke about it more in the kind of science fiction terms and the arguments that you might have heard back in the 80s when it was put in place. But are there real ethical concerns that need to be taken into account now? 

 

ELIZABETH:

It's hard to calibrate ethical concerns, but I think the discussion amongst ethicists these days is that everyone has a seat at the table. Let's hear what your ethical concerns are. And that will all be different. They will be different from a Roman Catholic than they are for somebody sitting in a wheelchair or somebody whose child has a terminal disease. I think my personal opinion on this is the value of the consultative process. That on a case-by-case basis, we need to look at what a researcher is proposing  and applying for a licence for a particular period of time for a particular type of experiment, clearly articulating what it is he or she is trying to achieve, why it can only be achieved by doing this research and not other types of research. 

 

We can't have hard and fast rules about these things, technology evolves, but our ethics has to evolve. And I think for me that realisation was a bit of an epiphany may sound ridiculous, but in writing this article, it was a bit of an epiphany for me that even though for a lot of my career as a science writer, I had thought, oh, no, no, we have lines in the sand here. We will never do genetic engineering of human embryos. We will never make human/animal embryos. But I realise, these were ethical positions that were adopted at a particular time, and ethics does evolve. I mean we evolve our understanding of human ethics and it is the same in science and technology.

 

RUBY:

Mm and I wanted to ask you, you mentioned the potential that this research could have in an age of COVID-19. And I just wanted to ask you about the pandemic more broadly, because obviously we've just seen the scientific community pull together. There's multiple vaccines now available for COVID-19. But I think it's also thrown into relief, um, the public's trust in scientists. I think that, you know, it's really shown us that while there is this huge capability, there is also some level of distrust amongst certain parts of the community who see this being developed so quickly and start to get nervous about that. And so I just wonder, as you've been watching that unfold, what your thoughts are on communities’ abilities to trust scientists and especially at this moment in time.

 

ELIZABETH:

I actually think this has been a great moment for public trust in science. So prior to this, the fastest vaccine we ever had was a four year one for mumps. And these vaccines were in trial 11 months from the beginning. The reason was is the front end, the technology. We didn't have to go through the same techniques that we normally had to go through for developing vaccines, you know, growing them in chicken eggs and so on and so forth. We've had this revolutionary new technique that involves messenger RNA. So this is a very dramatic illustration of how, because we've allowed science to give us all these amazing tools, we've had a vaccine in 11 months instead of years and we've lost eight million people. How many people would we lose if it was going to take you know, four years to get a vaccine. So I think it does show us that things that sound like very far-fetched or sci-fi like “Ew why would I want to allow human-monkey research to go on, creating these hybrid human-monkey embryos. Why would I allow such a thing to happen? Yuck”, you know. Maybe this will make us take a pause and see that by allowing a considered advance in technology, we have a suite of tools. And, wow, we've been able to call on them to get a vaccine in 11 months. Most research is aimed at benefiting the human condition, not creating sci-fi scripts. 

 

RUBY:

Elizabeth, thank you so much for your time. 

 

ELIZABETH:

My pleasure

 

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[Theme Music starts]

 

RUBY:

Also in the news today…Sydney’s COVID-19 cluster has grown to nine, after two more cases were reported on Sunday. Masks have been made mandatory indoors in seven local government areas, as well as on all public transport.

And the Victorian government has announced that clinical trials of Australia’s first locally produced mRNA vaccine will begin in October.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

 

[Theme Music ends]

 

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