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The Frankenstein-ish march through science and bioethics

Citing the desire to “make humanity younger and healthier,” Israeli scientists plan to create artificial embryos for organ harvesting and medical transplants.

(Image: Julia Koblitz/Unsplash.com)

When English author Mary Shelley published her novel Frankenstein in 1818, the world saw her lead character, scientist Victor Frankenstein, for what he was: a wildly misguided and sinister researcher whose work would upset the natural order and bring unintended consequences.

For more than 200 years, readers of horror fiction have understood that while the living being that Frankenstein created (yes, Frankenstein is the name of the ambitious creator, not his evil creation) was frightening and ugly, the true “monster” was the scientist who deliberately cast aside morality and customary scientific protocols in the laboratory.

Shelly’s novel exposed the grave consequences that result from defying nature. But that lesson seems to be lost on scientists at an Israeli firm, Renewal Bio. The firm hopes to take human DNA and use it to create artificial embryos. Those embryos, the company believes, would “make humanity younger and healthier.”

According to a paper published in the journal Cell on August 1, scientists at Weizmann’s Molecular Genetics Department successfully grew “synthetic mouse embryos” in a jar without using sperm, eggs, or a womb. Lead researcher Jacob Hannah, founder of Renewal Bio, told MIT Technology Review that he plans to replicate the study using human cells, including his own.

Despite widespread concern in the scientific community about the ethical implications of the project, Hannah insisted that the replica embryos were not “real,” explaining that they could not develop into fully formed mice. Other scientists, though, observed in the synthetic embryos characteristics including a beating heart, circulating blood, a primitive brain, a neural tube, and an intestinal tract. And a 2017 paper in the journal eLife warned that synthetic embryos may experience pain or sentience.

The Voice of America (VOA) News published a detailed summary of the research which resulted in scientifically constructed mouse embryos:

• They started by collecting cells from the skin of mice, then made them return to the state of stem cells.

• The stem cells were then placed in a special incubator designed by the researchers, which continuously moved to mimic a mother’s womb.

• The vast majority of the cells failed to form anything.

• But 50 — 0.5 percent of the 10,000 total — collected themselves into spheres, then embryo-like structures, the researchers said.

• After eight days — around a third of the 20-day mouse gestation period — there were early signs of a brain and a beating heart, they added. They were described as 95% similar to normal mouse embryos.

How did we reach this point, where the idea of simulating human life in the laboratory is acceptable to some in the science community?

Since 1979, scientists worldwide have adhered to what is called the “14-Day Rule,” which limits research on human embryos to a maximum period of 14 days after their creation, or to the equivalent stage of development that is normally attributed to a 14-day-old embryo. At least a dozen nations, including the United Kingdom, Canada and South Korea (but not the United States), have codified the 14-Day Rule into law.

But on May 26, 2021, due to rapid advances in the field of biomedical research, the International Society of Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) relaxed that widely accepted limit. Instead, they proposed that research which involves nurturing human embryos beyond the two-week mark should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Any proposed study would be subjected to several phases of review, and a determination would be made regarding at what point the experiments must be stopped. There remain limits on experimentation: The ISSCR continues to oppose editing of genes in human embryos, until scientific study of the safety of genome editing is better established. And any project, according to StatNews, should be allowed to move forward only if no other research models can answer the question that scientists want to study.

Biologist Robin Lovell-Badge, principal group leader of the Francis Crick Institute, chaired the ICSSR’s guidelines task force. Lovell-Badge explained, “We’ve relaxed the guidelines…. we haven’t abandoned them.”

And stem cell researcher Jacob Hanna, who led the research, hoped for positive results from the study. “The big problem for transplantation,” Hanna explained, “is that you need to find a matching donor and the DNA is never identical to the patient.” Hanna hoped that doctors might one day be able to extract cells from a patient’s own body – from his liver, for example – then use the cells to grow a synthetic embryo, then transplant them back into the patient. Since the cells would have come from the patient himself, the DNA would be an exact match, and there would be no risk of rejection.

As one would expect, the Catholic Church has addressed this complex issue and has come down clearly in defense of life.

Although scientists had not yet obtained the knowledge that would enable them to produce a synthetic human being, the Second Vatican Council (Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 51) presented the Church’s clear and certain doctrine regarding pre-born life: “Life, once conceived, must be protected with the utmost care; abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.”

The Charter of the Rights of the Family, published by the Holy See in 1983, confirmed that “Human life must be absolutely respected and protected from the moment of conception.”

More recently, in February 1987, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, issued a document in his role as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). As the field of biomedical research expanded to introduce new questions, the CDF had received multiple requests from various Episcopal Conferences or individual Bishops, as well as from theologians, doctors, and scientists. Those questions centered on biomedical techniques which make it possible to intervene in the initial phase of the life of a human being, and in the very processes of procreation. Did such research conform to the principles of Catholic morality? The CDF’s Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation responded to those queries, clarifying complex questions about the dignity of life.

The Instruction contains many technical and theological explanations, and is worthy of study in the face of current-day dilemmas. Of particular relevance to this proposed research, the document affirms:

“Respect for the dignity of the human being excludes all experimental manipulation or exploitation of the human embryo.” The practice of keeping alive human embryos in vivo or in vitro for experimental or commercial purposes is totally opposed to human dignity. In the case of experimentation that is clearly therapeutic, namely, when it is a matter of experimental forms of therapy used for the benefit of the embryo itself in a final attempt to save its life, and in the absence of other reliable forms of therapy, recourse to drugs or procedures not yet fully tested can be licit.

In a society which has often transgressed the limits imposed by natural law and God’s law, it’s not surprising that researchers have moved further into unknown territory. It would take only one new Frankenstein to launch a Gothic horror story like Shelley’s in our modern era, wreaking havoc in the home, the workplace, and the world.


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About Kathy Schiffer 33 Articles
Kathy Schiffer has written for the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.

3 Comments

  1. Should we find it shocking that Israeli scientists are working on “scientific” experiments pertaining to the human person?

  2. Keep checking back, though. The Pontifical Academy for Life may soon channel a way for Catholics to engage in this barbarism. You know, with all the “no inherent evils’, “let your conscience be your guide” theology “of paradigmatic shifts” going on over there.

  3. To my mind it is “inconceivable” that a synthetic human embryo, if produced “without sperm, eggs or womb” could fully mature and function as an otherwise “natural” human being. I cannot accept that the product of such a grotesque and dehumanizing experiment could survive beyond a small number of divisions of the embryonic cells, because I cannot accept that it would be endowed by God with the necessary animating principle of an immortal soul.

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