On March 2nd 2016, the biomedical world took a giant leap forward in the progress of embryonic stem cells, with a group of scientists successfully producing an artificial embryo of a mouse, purely from embryonic stem cells. This is the first time in history that a full scale embryo has been made from stem cells, opening doors for scientists to go and discover more potential benefits of the cells.
The process involved the transformation of a fertilised egg into a tiny living embryo, ranking among nature’s most impressive feats. The cells, grown outside the body in a blob of gel, were shown to morph into embryos that replicated the internal structure that emerge during normal development inside a womb. The scientists let the artificial embryo culture in the lab for seven days and by this point the cells had organised two anatomical sections that would normally go on to form the placenta and the mouse.
‘Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz’, the development biologist who led the work at the University of Cambridge, described the process as a “miracle of nature”. The team to do aim to stop from here after however, with the goal not growing artificial babies; instead learning more about embryo development prior to implantation.
The cells were placed in a semi-solid gel which allowed the structure to grow in three dimensions. After five days, the cells had multiplied and self organised themselves into distinct cell populations. The embryonic cells had also begin to organise themselves into two populations: one division, the mesoderm, would give rise to the heart, muscles and bones. The other cluster contained the cells that would go on to become skin, eyes and the brain.
The team used cells from embryos rather than starting from a fertilised egg, which could potentially overcome the shortage of human embryos available for research. Currently, these eggs are donated through IVF (in vitro fertilisation) clinics, while the supply for embryonic stem cells is limitless.
While the artificial embryo closely resembled the real thing, the research team said it is unlikely to develop further into a healthy foetus, as it would require the addition of the yolk sac, which provides the embryo nourishment and within which a network of blood vessels would develop. However, the promising the development gives hopes to scientists all over the world.