Why this research is more important than you think

what is in Reported as a world-first achievementBiologists develop mouse embryo models in the laboratory without the need for fertilized eggs, embryos, or even a mouse, using only stem cells and a special incubator.

this achievement, published in the journal Cell By a team led by researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, there is a very sophisticated model of what happens during early mouse embryonic development – ​​the stage right after implantation.

This is an important stage: in humans, many pregnancies are lost around this stage, and we don’t really know why. Having a model provides a way to better understand what can go wrong, and possibly provides insight into what we might be able to do about it.

the tiniest cluster

What is particularly interesting about the newly published model is its very complex structure; It not only mimics the cell specification and layout of the early-stage body plan – which includes the heart, blood, brain, and precursors of other organs – but also “support” cells such as those found in the placenta and establishing other tissues. are necessary for and maintain pregnancy.

This eight-day-old mouse embryonic model has a beating heart, a yolk sac, a placenta and an emerging blood circulation. Weisman Institute of Science.

The early stages of pregnancy in most animals are difficult to study. Embryos are microscopic, small clusters of cells that are difficult to detect and observe within the uterus.

But we know that things can go awry at this stage of development; For example, environmental factors can affect and inhibit growth, or cells fail to receive the right signals to fully form the spinal cord, such as spina bifida, Using a model like this, we can begin to ask why.

However, although these models are a powerful research tool, it is important to understand that they are No embryo.

They replicate only some aspects of development, but do not fully reproduce the cellular architecture and developmental potential of the embryo obtained after the fertilization of the egg by the sperm – the so-called natural embryo.

The team behind this work emphasized that they were unable to develop these models beyond eight days, whereas a typical mouse pregnancy lasts 20 days.

Are ‘Synthetic Embryos’ of Humans on the Horizon?

With new advancements every year, the field of embryo modeling is progressing rapidly.

In 2021, multiple teams Human pluripotent stem cells (cells that can transform into any other type of cell) managed to self-assemble in Petri dishes mimicking “blastocysts”. This is the earliest stage of embryonic development complex implantation processWhen a mass of cells attaches to the wall of the uterus.

Researchers using these human embryo models, often called blastoidsEven implantation in a dish has begun to be explored, but the process is far more challenging in humans than in mice.

Growing human embryonic models of the same complexity that have now been achieved with a mouse model is a distant proposition, but one we should still consider.

Importantly, we need to be aware of how representative such a model would be; A so-called synthetic embryo in a Petri dish will have its limits on what it can teach us about human development, and what we need to be mindful of.

Read more:
Researchers have developed ‘human embryos’ from skin cells. What does this mean, and is it ethical?

moral harm

There can be no embryo modeling without a source of stem cells, so when it comes to thinking about future uses for this technology, it is important to ask – where are these cells coming from? Are they human embryonic stem cells (derived from blastocysts), or are they induced pluripotent stem cells? The latter can be made in the laboratory from skin, or blood cells, for example, or can also be obtained from frozen samples.

An important consideration is whether using cells for this particular type of research – trying to imitate an embryo in a dish – requires any specific consent. We should think more about how this area of ​​research will operate, when and by whom it should be used.

However, it is important to recognize that existing laws and International Stem Cell Research Guidelines which provide a framework to regulate this area of ​​research.

In Australia, research involving human stem cell embryo models would require a license, as would the use of natural human embryos under law in force since 2002. Although, Unlike other jurisdictionsAustralian law also stipulates how long researchers can develop human embryo models, a restriction that some researchers will love to see changed,

Despite these or other changes to how and when human embryo research is conducted, there needs to be greater community discourse on the subject before a decision can be made.

There is a difference between banning the use of this technology and technologies such as cloning into humans for reproductive use, and allowing us to use embryonic models to advance our understanding of human growth and developmental disorders that we cannot answer in any other way. cannot be given through

Science is advancing rapidly. While mostly in rats at this stage, it’s time to discuss what this means for humans, and consider where and how we draw the line in the sand as science develops.

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