Scientists Use Stem Cells to Develop Synthetic Mouse Embryo With Brain, Heartbeat

Research with Mouse

Using stem cells from mice, scientists from the University of Cambridge created a synthetic mouse embryo with a brain, a heartbeat and a yolk sac, marking the most advanced stage of development in a stem cell-derived model.

The synthetic embryo was created without sperm or eggs. Instead, the researchers mimicked the natural fertilization process in a lab setting by guiding three types of stem cells present in the early development stages of mammals to a point where they begin to interact with each other. 

The scientists could make the cells communicate with each other by indicating the expression of specific gene sets and building an ideal environment for the stem cells to move. They found that extraembryonic cells can "talk" to embryonic cells through chemical signals and mechanistically through touch.

These results, culled from over ten years of research into embryo-like structures and their potential, are significant in helping scientists understand why some embryos fail while others move forward into a healthy pregnancy. The outcomes could also be valuable for determining strategies for repairing and developing synthetic human organs for transplantation purposes.

"So many pregnancies fail around this time, before most women realize they are pregnant. This period is the foundation for everything else that follows in pregnancy. If it goes wrong, the pregnancy will fail," Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, a professor in mammalian development and stem cell biology in Cambridge's Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, said in a university news release.

"The stem cell embryo model is important because it gives us accessibility to the developing structure at a stage that is normally hidden from us due to the implantation of the tiny embryo into the mother's womb. This accessibility allows us to manipulate genes to understand their developmental roles in a model experimental system," Zernicka-Goetz added.

Current research is based on mouse models, but Zernicka-Goetz and her colleagues plan to develop similar human models to understand how actual embryos go through critical development processes.

The U.K. law at present only allows scientists to study human embryos in a lab setting up to the 14th day of development. If Zernicka-Goetz and her team succeed in evaluating human samples, this could lead to the creation of breakthrough therapies and synthetic organ creation for people waiting for transplants. Full details of the study can be found in the journal Nature.

"What makes our work so exciting is that the knowledge coming out of it could be used to grow correct synthetic human organs to save lives that are currently lost. It should also be possible to affect and heal adult organs by using the knowledge we have on how they are made," Zernicka-Goetz noted.

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