Last week, while attending a conference, organized by the Petrie-Flom Center in conjunction with a number of other Harvard institutions, on the ethics of early embryo research and the future of the 14-day rule, I was struck by the presentations on recent developments in stem cell technology. The speakers outlined fascinating developments in human brain organoids. And, since my own cranial organoid is becoming increasingly single track, I started wondering about the potential patentability of such inventions.
By way of very brief explanation, a human brain organoid is a structure of cells created in vitro through the stimulation of human stem cells. A recent paper has concluded that, given the right conditions for their development, these cell cultures can grow to resemble a 20 week-old human brain in vivo in a number of important respects.
At the conference, Dr John Aach, of the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School highlighted the potential of these technologies to form the basis of innovative research and treatments. However, he also highlighted new ethical questions posed by them. In particular, (and I fear I may be grossly oversimplifying his much more subtle presentation) he noted that a sufficiently developed human brain organoid might have the capacity to feel pain. Such technologies might fall to be regulated alongside human embryos created for research. In most jurisdictions, developing an embryo beyond 14 days of gestation is prohibited, whether by law or soft regulation. The rule originally struck a balance between the interests of research and the demands of ethics: day 14 usually marks the appearance of the primitive streak in an embryo and presents a convenient point to place an ethical limitation on research. Dr Aach noted, however, that a brain organoid does not fall under the traditional definition of embryo. As such, its development is not necessarily subject to the 14-day rule. And yet, the creation of a clump of cells that feels pain is clearly a cause for ethical concern. He argued that the time has come to re-examine the rule in light of technological advancements like organoids. Its replacement, he argued, should not be based on canonical limits but on the underlying moral concerns. Continue reading