Artificial embryos: For some this sounds like ethically questionable human experiments, for others it sounds like hope for medical breakthroughs. Questions for the Basel systems biologist Prisca Liberali about the sense, nonsense and ethical limits of this research.
At the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel, systems biologist Prisca Liberali researches how tissues are created, how cells become what they are supposed to become, and how they communicate with each other.
SRF: In the last few weeks there have been reports of artificial embryos that have matured in the laboratory until around day 14 after fertilization. What do you think of such work?
Prisca Liberali: They are important. So far, this very early phase has been a “black box” for us because we are practically unable to examine it in the natural environment. Very few women already know that they are pregnant and there is still a long way to go until the first ultrasound image. Looking at the first days and weeks is only possible in the laboratory. Natural, real embryos that researchers can use are very rare, and there are many things we cannot examine for ethical reasons. Therefore: The artificial embryos are important for understanding these early steps at the beginning of life.
What use is it to understand more here?
It is also and especially about women’s health. So much about these first days and weeks of pregnancy is still unknown. More knowledge about the embryo also means more knowledge about pregnancy, including women’s health. There is still so much to do here. Artificial insemination still works with very high doses of hormones, and hormonal contraception also works almost the same today as it did decades ago.
Many people who want to become pregnant with medical support need countless attempts. This is not good.
But do you really have to create artificial embryos for this?
We don’t know exactly what the embryo needs during this time. We don’t know enough about what happens when it implants in the uterus. If we can recreate this in the lab and understand it better step by step, it’s not just science for science’s sake, but it can really make fertility medicine better. I don’t mean that in the sense of “getting even more women pregnant”, but rather in the sense of better methods, also gentler and more effective ones. Many people who want to become pregnant with medical support need countless attempts. This is not good.
But even in natural pregnancies, a lot of embryos are lost in this very early phase.
Yes, the success rate in humans at this very early stage is really poor. Early abortions are common and often go unnoticed. And we don’t really know why this happens in humans. With mice, for example, things are completely different. Until we understand this better, it will remain difficult to improve fertility medicine.
The question is also: Who decides what is still morally okay and what is no longer okay?
Nevertheless, the ethical questions remain. Is it okay to specifically recreate human life for research purposes?
This is an important topic and I don’t have an answer to it. Maybe it’s ok for some experiments, but not for others. The question is also: Who decides what is still morally okay and what is no longer okay? I think these are questions that we need to discuss openly. We need to start asking ourselves these questions. Every country has different values and it is not equally easy to talk about these topics everywhere. I have just organized a congress on this in Great Britain. There is much more talk and public discussion about this topic there, the debate is much broader. Here in Switzerland there is still very little talk about it.
Katrin Zöfel conducted the interview.