An artificial womb was utilized to produce synthetic mouse embryos by stem cell researchers in Israel. This breakthrough provides a glimpse into an interesting, perhaps contentious area of science that could potentially create human replacement organs in the future.
“This is an important landmark in our understanding of how embryos build themselves,” Alfonso Martinez Arias, a developmental biologist at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, said in an email to The Washington Post. He called the experiment a “game changer.”
Researchers at the Weizmann Institute in Israel discovered that it was possible to get mice stem cells to self-assemble into structures resembling early embryos with an intestinal tract, a developing brain, and a beating heart.
The mouse embryos developed for eight days in the artificial womb before the growing stopped.
The development follows a decade of research and attempts to create mouse and human cell-based embryo models.
Scientists anticipate that these live structures, often referred to as synthetic embryos because they are made without sperm, eggs, or fertilization, will advance the understanding of how organs and tissues develop throughout the growth of natural embryos.
The breakthrough may also lessen animal experimentation and eventually open the door to new sources of cells and tissues for use in human transplants, according to researchers.
For instance, a leukemia patient’s skin cells could potentially be converted into bone marrow stem cells to treat their illness.
Still, the models could conceivably create issues as they become more similar to a natural embryo.
“Attempting to create mouse embryos from embryonic stem cells does not raise any significant moral concerns, but such experiments should never be carried out to create bona fide human embryos,” said Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. the National Catholic Bioethics Center, to The Dallas Express. “This is parallel to cloning.”
He added, “There was not a moral problem with using cloning technology to produce a sheep embryo so that Dolly the sheep could be born, or to use the same process for cloning dogs or racehorses, but producing embryonic humans by cloning is always unacceptable.”
The artificial mouse embryos were not exactly the same as real ones and did not implant or result in pregnancies in actual mice, according to Jacob Hanna, a stem cell researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science.
Hanna expressed his hope that the technique may be utilized to generate synthetic human embryo models that could produce organ precursors that could be investigated and perhaps used therapeutically rather than as a replacement for human reproduction.
Pacholczyk maintains that human embryos should not be created outside the marital embrace, whether via cloning or by synthetic embryo production, because this subjugates young humans and treats them as raw material for experimental manipulation, and egregiously violates their human dignity and human rights.
Last year, the same team reported how they had created an artificial womb that allowed natural mouse embryos to develop outside the uterus for a few days. In the most recent study, the same equipment was used to grow mouse stem cells for more than a week — more than a third of the duration of a mouse’s gestation.
While the majority of stem cells failed to develop into structures resembling embryos, 0.5% of them united to create tiny balls that grew into unique tissues and organs.
The internal structure and genetic cell profiles of the synthetic mouse embryos were 95% identical to those of natural mouse embryos. The organs formed were functional, as far as the scientists could determine.