Photo: Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona
By Loren Grush
In futuristic movies like “Aliens 2″ and “12 Monkeys,” prisoners are bar coded for easy identification. But today’s reality is even wilder: Scientists have proposed bar-coding embryos.
Researchers from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in Spain have just finished testing a method for imprinting microscopic bar codes on mouse embryos — a procedure they plan to test soon on humans. The venture is meant to avoid mismatches during in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer procedures. But privacy experts and children’s rights advocates were instantly concerned by the concept of “direct labeling” of embryos, calling for transparency in the process.
“An embryo is a human life, so we have to move forward with this very, very cautiously,” Pam Dixon, executive director for the World Privacy Forum, told FoxNews.com. “Obviously we can’t ask the embryo what it wants, so the individual making the donation must consent to this as well as the individual receiving the donation. There’s got to be a lot of public discussion.”
The researchers insist that their technique is perfectly safe, claiming that the bar codes simply evaporate as the embryo develops into a fetus. Dr. Arthur Caplan, the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said that as long as development is not affected, any improvement on embryo transfer would be extremely beneficial — since mistakes can be heartbreaking.
“When you’re talking about mismatch, those kinds of errors are psychologically and emotionally devastating,” Caplan told FoxNews.com. “You have parents who want to reject the child saying that the child clearly isn’t the same race as they are. There’s also a danger that the donor may change their mind and want to get involved in parenting. People really want that biological connection. So I think this is a terrific idea to reduce those difficulties.”
The bar codes aren’t hidden or concealed — in fact, they’re easily observed through a standard microscope, and the research team hopes to develop an automatic code reading system when they perfect their technique for labeling mouse embryos.
And once that’s done, testing on human embryos will begin.
“We’re very enthusiastic about it,” said Elena Ibáñez, one of the researchers for the project — a collaboration with researchers from the Institute of Microelectronics of Barcelona and the Spanish National Research Council. “It’s something that if it works out, it could be extremely helpful for embryologists. Right now, fertility clinics are simply labeling the Petri dish. We’re just making an improvement on that system,” she told FoxNews.com.
The process involves injecting the bar codes, made from silicon, in the perivitelline space of embryos, the space between an embryo’s cell membrane and its protective outer cover, known as the zona pellucida. When the embryo attaches to the uterine wall, it frees itself from the zona pellucida, and the codes are meant to disappear right along with it, the researchers say.
This final stage has proven to be the most difficult for the researchers to polish, however; they’d like to find a more efficient means of “stamping” the embryos.
“We see in the mice that some of the codes get attached to the embryo itself,” said Ibáñez. “So one of the things we’re trying next is to implant the code directly on the outside cover rather than inside of it. That way we’ll be 100 percent sure that the code doesn’t remain.”
If the research team wants to be able to make the leap from mice to humans, they’ll need to be certain that the code detaches. Dixon says that it would be a definite invasion of privacy if there were any indication that that the bar code would remain. She urged researchers to explore alternative means of identification before moving forward with this technique.
“The outcome of this isn’t necessarily going to be positive,” Dixon told FoxNews.com. “Just because it’s an advanced technology doesn’t mean it’s going to make things mistake-proof. I think there are other alternatives that are less invasive that can provide the same function. Plus I can see many women who would not wanted to be implanted with a bar-coded embryo.”
But Ibáñez assures that the procedure is perfectly safe and that no one should feel apprehensive about utilizing the new system.
“If there’s any concern that this could harm the embryo, remember that the silicon we use is completely harmless,” said Ibáñez. “The embryos develop normally and once we’ve perfected everything, they will lose the code after implantation,” she told FoxNews.com.
“So you won’t be producing a baby with code on it,” she said.