Beginnings Reporting on science and intelligent design

‘Faux’ embryos, real problems

Science | Regulations on baby-manufacturing are needed sooner, not later
by Julie Borg
Posted 12/12/19, 05:43 pm

Less than two years ago, scientists at Cambridge University in Britain announced they had engineered artificial mouse embryos from stem cells rather than from an egg and sperm. Ethicists warned the new technique would lead to the production of synthetic human embryos—and it did.

Researchers at the University of Michigan have learned how to use stem cells to manufacture models of human embryos that can grow and develop, according to a recent study published in Nature. The scientists allowed the embryo models to live only four days, but even in their short life span, the cells multiplied and formed the initial stage of an amniotic sac and the inner cells that would eventually become a body.

“It’s uncanny how much it is like a human embryo,” Alfonso Martinez Arias, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, told MIT Technology Review.

The researchers, who hope to use their discovery to test fertility drugs and study embryonic development, said they have successfully turned stem cells into embryo-like structures in 90 percent of their trials, producing hundreds of them. The embryo models lack the tissues necessary to form a placenta and could never become a human being, the scientists said.

Now is the time, according to ethicists, to implement laws to prevent scientists from using the technology to create genetically modified people.

Jianping Fu, one of the Michigan researchers, told MIT Technology Review that regulators must oversee such scientific experiments and ban using stem cell–based embryos to produce a human baby. “Many scientists are trying to push boundaries, and people are crossing lines,” he said. “I don’t trust self-regulation.”

It remains unclear whether the federal laws that prohibit the funding of research using fetal tissue from abortions also applies to human embryo models made from stem cells.

Eric Siggia, a scientist at Rockefeller University in New York who works with embryonic research, told MIT Technology Review the government regulatory agencies are in a “state of confusion” as they struggle to define “what is an embryo and what is not.” He said funding decisions do not affect his research because “we just use private funds.”

Ethical problems have plagued human embryonic research from the beginning because it involves the destruction of human life, said David Prentice, vice president and research director for the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Artificially creating embryos doesn’t change that.

“Any organism that is a human being should not be a matter for experimentation,” he said. “It is the technique used to create them that is artificial, not the embryos.” Prentice added that we need regulations that confine the study of embryonic development to animal models to avoid crossing “any sort of line using human material.”

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Cellphone risks

Experts have warned that cellphone use could cause everything from traffic accidents to cancer, germ exposure, burns, and electromagnetic radiation. New research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week, adds head and neck injuries to the list.

Rutgers New Jersey Medical School plastic surgeon Boris Paskhover led the study after noticing a spike in the number of patients coming in with head and neck injuries related to cellphone use. One woman broke her nose by dropping her phone on her face.

Most reported cellphone-related injuries happen due to driving accidents, but other causes are underreported, the researchers said.

The research team analyzed more than 76,000 emergency room records in a national database from 100 hospitals. They found a steady increase in head and neck injuries related to cellphone use beginning in 2006, about the same time smartphones first hit the market.

Misuse of a phone, such as throwing it at someone, caused some of the wounds, but distraction while walking, texting, or engaging in other activities accounted for most of the injuries. People between the ages of 13 and 29 made up about 40 percent of the injured.

Paskhover said people need to exercise caution and common sense when using a cellphone.

“People wouldn’t walk around reading a magazine,” he said. “Be careful.” —J.B.

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Fearfully and wonderfully made

Two discoveries about the human brain defy scientific explanation. In a study, published in the journal Neuron on Nov. 6, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel studied 1,113 brain scans and discovered that some women enjoy an excellent sense of smell despite lacking the brain structures that process scents.

Olfactory bulbs in the brain receive information from the 6 million receptor cells in the nose and use it to produce a sense of smell in humans. Without them, a person should not be able to detect odors.

“But the fact remains that these women smell the world in the same way as the rest of us, and we don’t know how they achieve this,” said Noam Sobel of the institute’s neurobiology department. One explanation: Other areas of the brain may have taken over the function that olfactory bulbs usually perform.

The researchers found the phenomenon in only 0.6 percent of the women in the study, but that included more than 4 percent of the left-handed women. No men in the study showed the peculiarity, and scientists do not know why it occurs so much more frequently in left-handed women.

Similarly, another study, published Nov. 19 in the journal Cell Reports, found that adults who underwent surgery during childhood to remove half of their brains for treatment of epileptic seizures still functioned normally in adulthood. The remaining half of their brains strengthened and took over the functions of the missing part. —J.B.

Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite (file) Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite (file) Jim Scarpone of Kingston, N.H., with a photo of his son, protests opioid policies in front of the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington.

Dying young

U.S. life expectancy is on the decline after rising for decades, a new study found. According to the research, life expectancy in the country increased between 1959 and 2010, plateaued in 2011, and has steadily decreased since 2014.

The study, published Nov. 26 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reported most of the decline happened among people between the ages of 25 and 64. Diseases that afflict the young, like hypertension, along with drug overdose, alcohol abuse, and suicide, drove the decrease.

The lower life expectancy appeared most pronounced among people living in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and in the Ohio Valley, which includes Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—all areas heavily affected by the opioid crisis. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a clinical psychologist and writer who lives in Dayton, Ohio. She reports on science and intelligent design for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital.

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