Researchers have discovered a way to keep human embryos alive in laboratories for longer, paving the way for experimentation on embryos beyond the current legal limit.
Previously, embryos grown in laboratories have not lived past nine days – the stage at which an embryo needs to an implant in order to survive.
But scientists at the University of Cambridge have discovered a way to keep embryos alive beyond that point. The embryos were allowed to die at 13 days, because the current law does not permit them to live beyond 14 days.
For the first time, it is now scientifically possible to transgress the 14-day limit, which may lead to pressure to extend the legal time period.
In a report published in the journal Nature, the researchers said their observation of the embryos suggested that “events at this stage of human development are embryo-autonomous, highlighting the remarkable and unanticipated self-organising properties of human embryos”.
The director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, Professor David Albert Jones, said in a statement that the scientists “have shown how embryonic human beings live and develop with a life that is their own from the very beginning. Even at the embryonic stage, the human organism is a living, autonomous being, a self, a wonderful life that can be sustained or can be destroyed.
“It is a dark irony that they learned this through experimenting on and destroying these very same remarkable self-organising human lives.”
Professor Jones said that the technique would lead to more experimentation on human embryos, and might even be a step towards “culturing babies outside the womb, where the child is not only conceived outside the protection of his or her mother’s body but no such human connection is envisaged at any stage.”
He added: “Human life and human pregnancy should not be separated in this way. On a technical level this experiment represents a breakthrough but it is also a further step away from ethical science and a further step towards an increasingly inhuman future.”