In recent years, scientists have made impressive headway with organoids—clumps of tissue or bundles of cells that resemble a miniature version of a human organ. But as the technology continues to progress at rapid speeds, are the ethical considerations playing catch up?
A group of researchers is scheduled to speak at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago today to discuss the ethical implications of organoid-based research, The Guardian reports. They argue that some scientists working with organoids risk crossing ethical lines and could unwittingly cause their biological creations to suffer, were they to become conscious—and that some may have already crossed that line by creating sentient tissue.
The last decade or so has seen major improvements in researchers’ abilities to create mini 3D models of human organs using stem cells. These undifferentiated cells can be cajoled into different types of tissue and thus different types of organ, from the intestine to the heart or kidney.
By and large, these don’t pose too much of a dilemma and can be hugely beneficial to biomedical research—they sidestep the problem of differences between human and animal biology that hamper progress with traditional methods that involve animal testing, as well as the ethical questions that come with such research.
But the development of brain organoids—and studies that have detected brain activity in these organoids—raises questions over whether it is possible for them to achieve consciousness and, if it is, whether these experiments could cause suffering.
“We don’t want people doing research where there is potential for something to suffer,” Elan Ohayon, the director of the Green Neuroscience Laboratory in San Diego, California, who will be talking at the conference today, told The Guardian
The brain organoids that exist as of right now are roughly the same size as a lentil and contain (a relatively tiny) 2 to 3 million cells. The human brain, in contrast, has billions of cells.
However, studies have reported being able to detect brain activity. In August, researchers said brain waves were being produced two months into a 10-month growing process—which, Newsweek reported at the time, was described as ‘unprecedented.’ The team was able to compare the activity to that seen in premature babies, concluding activity was equivalent to that seen in babies born 25 to 39 weeks after conception.
The study’s authors were keen to emphasize the point that it does not mean it was sentient but it does highlight how fast-moving progress in this field of research has become. Ohayon told The Guardian, “If there’s even a possibility of the organoid being sentient, we could be crossing that line.”
He will be arguing for greater checks to reduce the risk of crossing the line and for freezing research that risks organoids becoming conscious or involves implanting human brain organoid implants into other animals (like mice).
But it is not the first time scientists have raised the ethics question. In 2018, a group including biologists and philosophers discussed the problems around research involving human brain surrogates—a category that involves ex vivo brain tissue and chimeras, as well as organoids.
In the article, published in Nature, the authors asked:
“If researchers could create brain tissue in the laboratory that might appear to have conscious experiences or subjective phenomenal states, would that tissue deserve any of the protections routinely given to human or animal research subjects?”
“It’s incredibly important that the research be able to go forward in order to alleviate a tremendous amount of human suffering that arises from injury to the human brain,” Nita A. Farahany, a leading expert on the ethical, legal and social implications of biosciences, told Aristos Georgiou at Newsweek.
“But some of the questions about how to ethically make progress in this area, include asking some difficult questions.”