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London: A human-like embryo has been grown without a sperm or egg in a breakthrough that could help prevent miscarriages.

The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, managed to persuade stem cells to self-organise into a structure closely resembling a 14-day embryo – the point at which cells start to assemble into something resembling a fetus, and implant in the womb.

A stem cell–derived human embryo model at a developmental stage equivalent to that of a day 14 embryo. The model has all the compartments that define this stage: the yolk sac (yellow) and the part that will become the embryo itself, topped by the amnion (blue) – all enveloped by cells that will become the placenta (pink). Credit: Weizmann Institute of Science

The man-made embryo even released hormones that tested positive on a pregnancy scan.

Scientists are hopeful that by creating artificial embryos they will be able to probe the first few weeks of life, when many pregnancies fail.

Until now, researchers have been limited to studying donated embryos from IVF procedures.

Although other groups have created similar embryos in recent months, Professor Jacob Hanna, from the Weizmann Institute of Science, said it was the first “complete” model for mimicking all the key structures that emerge in the early stages of a human organism.

Last year the team created the first artificial embryo without conception, using stem cells from mice.

In that case, the cells went on to form a beating heart, a brain and an intestinal tract in the same way as a natural embryo.

It is currently illegal to allow human embryos to develop in a lab for research purposes beyond 14 days.

‘Opening a window’ for new studies

Commenting on the announcement, Dr James Briscoe, assistant research director at the Francis Crick Institute in London, said: “The important thing about this research is that it is a step towards opening a window on the period of human development where many pregnancies fail and which has been really difficult to study up until now.”

However, experts said that producing artificial embryos raised “profound ethical and legal questions” and said new regulations and guidelines for how they could be used needed to be in place.

Professor Darius Widera, professor of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, University of Reading, England, said that in contrast to similar studies published earlier this year, these embryo-like structures contained most of the cell types found in developing embryos and exhibited a high degree of organisation, mirroring what is typically observed in early human embryos during normal development.

“This research and other recent reports on models of the early human embryo show that models of human embryos are getting more sophisticated and closer to events that occur during normal development, highlighting that a robust regulatory framework is more needed than ever before.”

The Telegraph, London

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