Are artificial twin embryos 'the Netherlands' next embryo model'?

Artificial twin embryos have been developed from skin cells by a research team in Maastricht. They want to investigate the development of identical twins with a shared placenta, which increases the risk of pregnancy complications. There is currently no legislation for research with these explosives.

Merlin Institute

The study conducted by Dorian Luijkx et al From the MERLN Research Institute at Maastricht University has been published in Advanced Materials. The research team reprogrammed skin cells into stem cells and used them to form blastulas. They have succeeded in creating identical twins one out of every five times. In blastomatous twins, researchers recorded the development of monochorionic twins. The idea is that the moment of origin could explain the shared placenta of identical twins. During the cavitation stage in early embryonic development, there is accelerated growth, as division of the inner cell mass occurs. The twin blastula then contain two internal cell masses, each with a suitable space for implantation.

Fetus-like structures

It is becoming increasingly possible to maintain embryo-like structures (ELS) for a longer period, and it is expected that ELS will come increasingly closer to reality. At this time, further development and research of ELS can be carried out freely. This raises questions about how morally justified this is. Moreover, the possibility of inactivating certain genes to limit their viability also exists in human embryos, which are subject to restrictions. Researchers have regular contact with ethicists affiliated with MUMC+, but their options are not supported or restricted by legal frameworks. “As a society, we must debate the meaning and protections we attach to these embryo-like structures,” says Michele Habets, an ethicist and senior researcher at the Rathenau Institute.

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Ethical issues

In March 2024, the Rathenau Institute published a report entitled “Seeds for a Social Debate – Urgent Issues Surrounding In Vitro Germ Cell Research,” which discusses the consequences of research using in vitro germ cell (IVG) techniques. While ELS does mimic human embryos, the difference between it and future IVG embryos lies in the origin of ELS from skin cells rather than artificial germ cells. The question is how important is this difference? Ethicist and lead researcher Michelle Habits points out that many of the ethical issues raised in this report also apply to research with embryo-like structures, such as blastula (twins).

Habitz believes it is important that legislation related to ELS research is introduced, but stresses the importance of social debate. “We must have a dialogue about the conditions we as a society are willing to impose on such research and to what extent donors should be required to obtain permission to conduct research on their (skin) cells.” By engaging the community, on the one hand, public opinion can be taken into account by policy makers and, on the other hand, support for future policy can be created.

Fetal law

Embryo-like structures are not covered by current embryo law. While human embryos may not survive longer than fourteen days outside the body, for blastema there is now only a practical limit of fourteen days as well. Work has been underway to amend the Embryo Law since 2022. ZonMw's third legal evaluation recommends inclusion of ELS in the law. The proposed definition is a self-organizing structure arising from stem cells, which fully or partially mimics embryonic development. It is proposed that notification of ELS research and evaluation by the Central Committee for Human Research (CCMO) is required in the case of a “healthy human fetus” simulation. It is not yet known when the law will change.

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Public debate

The Rathenau Institute wants to enable social debate about ELS by organizing focus groups, where citizens discuss topics previously unknown to them. NEMO Kennislink and the Rathenau Institute are jointly organizing an event tour next summer to reach a wider audience. At Zwarte Cross and during the Libelle and Margriet Summer Week, among other places, visitors can participate in the “Netherlands Next Embryo Model”, where they can discuss the scientific opportunities and ethical concerns they see in research on embryo models.

doi: 10.1002/adma.202313306



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Megan Vasquez

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