Stem cell research has allowed medicine to go to places that were once science fiction. Using stem cells, scientists have produced heart cells, brain cells and other cell types that are now being transplanted to patients as a form of cell therapy. In the end, the field predicts that the same will be possible with the organs. A new paper by a group of international researchers led by Tsutomu Sawai, an assistant professor at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Biology at Kyoto University (ASHBi) and the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA), explains the future ethics of laboratory research on brain organoids. a structure that is designed to grow and behave like a brain.
In just over ten years, a new word has entered the lexicon of stem cell science. “Organoids” describe organ-like structures that mimic how organs are formed in the body. By recapitulating normal development, organoids have proven to be invaluable tools for understanding not only how organs grow, but also how diseases develop. Organoids have been reported to involve a number of organs, including the liver, kidneys, and, most controversially, the brain, along with others.
The brain is considered the source of our consciousness. Therefore, if the brain organoids really mimic the brain, they too should develop consciousness, which, as the article states, brings with it all sorts of moral implications.
“Consciousness is very difficult to define a property. We don’t have very good experimental techniques that confirm consciousness. But even if we can’t prove consciousness, we should set guidelines because it requires scientific progress,” said Sawai, who has spent several years writing about ethics. brain organoid research.
Brain organoids have led to deep questions about consciousness. Some people imagine a future in which our brains are placed and held on a cloud, and after our bodies die, organoids bring the opportunity to test consciousness and morality in artificial environments.
Ethicists have divided consciousness into many kinds. Phenomenal consciousness presupposes an awareness of pain, pleasure, and trouble. Sawai and his colleagues argue that while restrictions on experiments using brain organelles would be needed, phenomenal consciousness would not directly prohibit experiments, because animals commonly used in science, such as rodents and monkeys, also show phenomenal consciousness. Self-awareness would add to ethical conflicts, as this status gives higher morals.
However, Sawai said there was an even more urgent issue.
“One of the biggest problems is transplants. Do we need to put brain organoids in animals to observe how the brain behaves?”
Stem cell research presented the possibility of growing xeno-organs. For example, researchers have achieved profound success in breeding mouse pancreas in rats and vice versa, and similar research is expected to lead to human pancreatic breeding in pigs. In principle, these animals would become organ farms that can be harvested and bypass the long waiting time of organ donors.
Although the cultivation of the entire human brain in animals is not subject to serious consideration, transplantation of brain organoids could provide a key insight into how diseases such as dementia or schizophrenia are created and treated for their treatment.
“This is still too futuristic, but that doesn’t mean we should wait to decide on ethical guidelines. It’s not so much the biological humanization of an animal that can happen to any organoid that matters, but the moral humanization that’s exclusive to the brain,” he said. Sawai.
Other concerns, he added, include improved abilities – think the Planet of the Apes. Furthermore, if an animal were to develop humanized traits, then human dignity would be violated towards it, which is a basic principle of ethical practice.
The paper notes that some people do not consider these outcomes unethical. Enhanced abilities without changing self-awareness are equivalent to using more animals in experiments, such as switching from mouse to monkey. And a change in dignity does not mean a change in human dignity. Instead, change could result in a new kind of dignity.
Nonetheless, the authors believe that the possibility of unintentional connections between the transplanted brain organoid and the brain of the animal deserves consideration as a precaution.
However, the biggest concern regarding brain organoid transplantation does not involve animals. There is good reason to believe that the future of research will bring the possibility of transplanting these structures to patients who have suffered sudden trauma, stroke, or other brain injury.
There are already a number of clinical trials involving brain cell transplantation as cell therapy in patients with such injury or neurodegenerative diseases. Sawai said the ethics behind these therapies can act as a paradigm for brain organoids.
“Cell transplants change the way brain cells work. If something goes wrong, we can’t just take them out and start over. But right now, cell transplants are usually only in one place. Brain organoids are expected to communicate more deeply with the brain, risking the unexpected. changes, ”he believes.
At the end of 2018, noise arose in the stem cell field when a scientist announced that he had genetically engineered a human embryo that has an expiration date. The actions of the scientists violated the international framework and resulted in imprisonment.
To avoid similar controversy and the possible loss of public confidence in brain organoid research, the paper explicitly states that all stakeholders, including ethicists, policy makers, and scientists, must remain in constant communication about progress in this field.
“We need to communicate with each other regularly about scientific facts and their ethical, legal and social implications,” Sawai said.