What’s in a name? A hurdle for human development research, experts say

Scientists are struggling with public misconceptions on what embryoids are and what research on them entails, the confusion that leads to policy decisions restricting access to important scientific exploration, according to a new paper by experts at Rice University — who blame the use of terms like synthetic or artificial embryos to describe them.

Embryoids are stem cell-based models of human embryos that can be produced to mimic different stages of embryonic development to aid research on human development. The paper’s authors propose using “embryoids” as a general term and developing a new naming convention that more clearly differentiates them from human embryos, which they say could lead to more appropriate, less stringent regulations on embryoid research.

Image credit: Nissim Benvenisty via Wikimedia, CC-BY-2.5

Researchers can guide stem cells (like those in the illustration above) to an injury by using near-infrared light and an injected DNA nanodevice. Image credit: Nissim Benvenisty via Wikimedia, CC-BY-2.5

“Scientists can produce embryoids in larger numbers to allow for statistical analysis, which they cannot do with embryos created via fertilization due to limited availability, and funding restrictions and ethical concerns associated with human embryos,” wrote paper co-authors Kirstin Matthews, a fellow in science and technology policy at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy who is available to speak to the news media on the topic, and Rice Department of BioSciences associate professors Dan Wagner and Aryeh Warmflash. “Embryoids allow for the testing and refinement of theories and hypotheses before or in place of moving on to experimenting on embryos.”

Fertility researchers developed a way to create viable human embryos outside the womb in the 1970s. That triggered widespread ethical debate and policies governing research on embryos and products derived from them — including embryonic stem cells (ESCs).

The advent of new technologies poses new ethical and policy questions around embryonic research today. For example, the “14-day rule” prohibits research on embryos after two weeks post-fertilization; however, embryoids can be constructed to mimic developmental stages at later points, such as day 17, but with limited capabilities.

“Trying to apply embryo laws and guidelines to embryoids hangs on the assumption that we should treat embryoids similar to an embryo or (an ordinary) cell model, when perhaps they should be considered as something else that is unique,” the authors wrote.

Confusion about how embryoids are created, what they are composed of and what they can do has muddied the debate about how they should be regulated. This is especially important in the United States, where federal funding is permitted for human ESC research but not human embryo research, according to the paper.

“For example, earlier this month, three research groups created stem cell models mimicking an early human embryo at approximately five days, known as blastoids. All three groups stopped their experiments prior to day 14 in respect for the 14-day rule,” Matthews said.

The paper argues that the public’s concerns are exacerbated by the names they go by in the scientific community, such as synthetic embryos or artificial embryos.

“While many scientists are eager to use terms that highlight their similarity with embryos, these terms can raise unnecessary concern that the entities are embryos in the minds of the public and regulators,” the authors wrote. “Names can hold power in public perception, and much of the confusion of how to regulate human embryoids is linked to contradictory and sometimes inaccurate names scientists and science journalists have used.

“Just like how the term ‘cloning’ elicits concern (bringing to mind pictures of newly created identical humans), so do many of the general terms, such as ‘artificial embryos’ used by the media,” they continued.

The authors’ goal is to recommend a more robust discussion and the development of nomenclature among the scientific community, they said.

“In addition to a general name for the field, developing a naming convention would allow researchers, policymakers and the public to more easily distinguish one type of embryoid from another and could reduce confusion and lesson the risks of all embryoids being subjected to restrictive regulations that might only be appropriate for a few,” Matthews said.

Source: Rice University