Artificial embryo grown in a laboratory for the very first time

Artificial embryo grown in a laboratory for the very first time

synthetic embryo

synthetic embryo

The world’s first artificial embryo has been created in a lab, raising hopes of preventing miscarriages.

An embryo usually requires the fertilization of an egg with a sperm, which then grows in the womb before birth.

Now scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel have shown that a synthetic version can be made using only stem cells from non-conceptive mice.

Researchers found they formed a beating heart, brain and intestinal tract in much the same way as a natural embryo.

The experiment opens the door to new forms of research into fetal development and miscarriage, as well as a potential way to reduce animal testing. In the future, the technique could also grow embryos as a stock of organs for harvesting and transplantation.

In 2021, the team created a way to make “naïve” stem cells that can transform into any tissue in the body, from neurons to skin cells. They also built a machine that acts as an artificial womb, allowing the embryos to grow in their normal way.

But previous studies had all worked with real mouse eggs that were fertilized, and the team wanted to create synthetic alternatives that bypassed all of the natural steps.

The versatile stem cells of the naïve mouse were introduced into the machine, combining the two earlier discoveries with chemicals to support the development of the placenta and yolk sac, which are essential for embryonic development.

embryonic development

embryonic development

Prof. Jacob Hanna von Weizmann’s Department of Molecular Genetics, who led the research team, called the chemicals “a temporary boost” to aid development.

The overwhelming majority of experiments failed, but a pregenital embryonic sphere was formed in 0.5 percent of attempts, one in 200.

This minority of experiments then lengthened, lasting more than eight days, growing in exactly the same way and at the same rate as a natural embryo.

A mouse pregnancy lasts only 20 days, by which time the 8.5-day-old embryos had developed miniature functioning organs, including a beating heart, brain and intestinal tract.

The researchers had labeled the cells with colored markers so they could be viewed under a microscope, and they saw that the synthetic embryo, which was not made from gametes, was 95 percent similar to a real mouse fetus.

Prof Hanna said the team now wants to find out exactly how the cells know what to do and how the instructions are passed on to produce organs in the right place at the right time.

He added that because the mechanical uterus and petri dish approach is transparent, the team can follow every step of an embryo’s development in minute detail.

This, he says, “may prove useful for modeling birth and implantation defects in human embryos” to shed light on the hidden dynamics of embryonic development, which could help explain the cause of some miscarriages.

transparent uterus

transparent uterus

And because the system only requires stem cells, not real fertilized eggs, the supply is vast and there are fewer logistical and ethical hurdles in the way of research.

The embryos are not real, Prof Hanna said, and if they were to grow to full maturity, they would not produce live animals.

Israel, where the work was conducted, has ethical approval for these experiments to be conducted using human stem cells. The UK has similar laws and this could open the door to such research, where synthetic human embryos are developed in a laboratory for study, experimentation and ultimately transplantation.

Researchers say the discovery is a significant advance for research, but add that there is still a long way to go to improve the technique.

Prof Alfonso Martinez Arias, from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) in Barcelona, ​​described the results as a “potentially important development”, but said that improving the reliability of the method is a priority before it can be widely deployed.

“It will take time, but it is being done,” he added.

“Importantly, it opens the door to similar studies using human cells, although there are many regulatory hurdles to overcome first.”

dr James Briscoe, deputy director of research at the Francis Crick Institute in London, said synthetic human embryos are still a distant dream but the work is “a valuable proof-of-concept demonstration”.

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