pugpig-embryo-gettyA group of scientists have been studying human embryo development in a laboratory setting and they have recently reported the successful growth of an embryo outside the human body. While the embryo only lived for 13 days, it is the first step in gaining new insight on the early stages of human life.

“We will learn things we cannot even imagine,” explains Rockefeller University embryologist Ali Brivanlou. “It’s as if you say: ‘If I look at new sets of Hubble Space Telescope pictures that I haven’t seen yet, what will I learn from them?’ It’s difficult to say until you look at them.”

Similarly, University of Cambridge mammalian development and stem cell biolgoy professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz contends, “It actually allows us to understand the very first steps in our developmentat the time of implantation where the embryo, really for the first time, reorganises itself to form the future body.”

The study co-author continues, “Those steps we didn’t know before so it has enormous implication for reproductive technologies.”

Of course, doctors and scientists are excited about the discovery but many are questioning the ethics. In fact, the embryos only survived in the petri dish for 13 days because the research team was uncomfortable—ethically and legally—of pursuing the experiment past this time frame. After all, international regulation does not allow study of embryo more than two weeks after fertilization because of what has been determined to be the embryo’s transition into the gasrulation phase—which is when the basic body begins to develop.

Some researchers still argue that 14 days is not long enough to get the data they really need. Accordingly, Rockefeller University associate vice president Amy Wilkerson notes, “Now that it has become possible to culture human embryos to the 14-day limit and perhaps beyond, the time is right for the scientific community to educate the public about the potential benefits and to work with regulators on ethical consensus to guide important research.”

Obviously, these arguments are separate issues that overlap. The research could be very important in terms of disease treatment and other medical advances; but of course, the research also questions the sanctity of life, an argument pro-life advocates will have great trouble with.