first steps to regulate a scientific revolution

2023-10-11 07:31:06

In an opinion issued on Wednesday, the French Biomedicine Agency considers that the use of these “embryoid” artificially created for research must be better regulated.

They are not human embryos but they are close. Artificially created for the purposes of research, “embryoid” constitute a dazzling scientific revolution which is now pushing certain health authorities to establish initial rules. “ Embryoids enable scientific and medical advances » but they present “ risks of drift (which require) to put in place regulation », Estimated the French Biomedicine Agency in an opinion delivered on Wednesday.

This is the first time in the world that a public regulatory authority has taken a position on a field of research which until recently appeared to be science fiction but has experienced rapid development in recent months.

Cell assemblies without fertilization

These embryoids are cellular assemblies that reproduce the functioning and development of an embryo, without needing any fertilization. Since this year, several teams of researchers have succeeded in developing such similar embryos from human cells, a scientific first of rare magnitude. Because, beyond the technical prowess, the stakes are considerable from a medical point of view. Embryoids potentially provide a much better understanding of the first days of an embryo, a period whose mechanisms remain very mysterious.

But this sudden acceleration of research also poses numerous ethical problems, starting with the very status of embryoids: should we just consider them as clusters of cells or can we speak of real “synthetic” embryos, carrying within them the potential of a human being? In the current state of research, these questions are very theoretical, the embryonic models remaining approximate and incapable of surviving more than a few days. But a number of researchers, particularly within the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), are already committed to defining a regulatory framework, often less out of an appetite for coercion than to take the lead on a subject. which promises to create lively political and societal controversies.

The more these models resemble (embryos), the more it will raise ethical questions that must be resolved.

Hervé Chneiweiss, neurobiologist

« Is it necessary to create a framework ? All scientific circles recommend it », Reported to AFP the neurobiologist Hervé Chneiweiss who works, within Inserm, on international recommendations. “ The more these models will look like (embryos)the more it will raise ethical questions that must be resolved “, he explained, evoking for example the risk – certainly ” absolute fantasy » at present – that researchers will one day try to implant a similar embryo into a woman to trigger a real pregnancy.

But, beyond the general need to establish rules, the scientific world struggles to agree on details, given the very changing nature of this scientific field. “ There are many unanswered questions left », underlined a study, published in August in the journal Stem Cell Research & Therapy , which aimed to provide an overview of the debates between researchers: Who should develop rules? How to enforce them? How restrictive should they be?

In fact, no country has adapted its legislation. In an exceptional case, the Dutch government is considering it but the subject has no chance of success given the disagreements on the subject within the majority parties – liberals, progressives and Christian Democrats -, especially since new elections are imminent.

Create an intermediate status

It is in this context that the opinion of the Biomedicine Agency which oversees research on stem cells in France comes into play. Although it is officially devoid of regulatory status, it will, in fact, set a framework for future research in the country since any researcher will have to request authorization from the agency to work on embryoids. She is in favor of creating an intermediate status between research on human embryos, which is extremely regulated, and research on stem cells, which is too “permissive” in the case of embryoids, according to her.

This would involve, for example, not developing embryoids beyond four weeks, the threshold being set at two weeks for real embryos. The idea is to stay far away from “ the period of onset of the feeling of pain “, without speaking ” of consciousness “. And, ultimately, “ their implantation in vivo must remain prohibited », insists the agency, refusing to establish any equivalence between embryoids and embryos.

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