The world’s first “synthetic embryos” – a fact

Israeli researchers using mouse stem cells have formed embryo-like structures that carry the intestinal tract, early brain and beating heart.

This is a pioneering feat by Israeli scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science (published in the journal Cell) that eliminates the need for sperm, eggs, and fertilization. The researchers grew mouse stem cells that self-assembled into early embryo-like structures.

These living structures, known as synthetic embryos because they are created without fertilized eggs, are expected to lead in the short term to a better understanding of how organs and tissues are formed during the development of natural embryos.

The researchers believe the work could also reduce the amount of animal experimentation and, ultimately, pave the way for new sources of cells and tissues for human organ transplantation. For example, skin cells from a leukemia patient could potentially be converted into bone marrow stem cells to treat their condition.

“We show that embryonic stem cells create whole synthetic embryos,” said Professor Jacob Hanna, who led the study. “We are really excited about this work and its potential.”

Last year, the same team described how created an artificial womb that allows natural mouse embryos to grow outside of it for days. In the most recent work, the same device was used to culture and grow mouse stem cells for more than a week, nearly half the test animal’s gestation period.

Some of the cells were pre-treated with chemicals that activated the genetic programs for the development of the placenta while others grew without interfering with organs and other tissues.

Most stem cells failed to form embryonic structures, but in about 0.5% of cases, they managed to create tissues and organs. Compared to natural mouse embryos, the synthetic ones were 95% identical in terms of their internal structure and cell genetic profiles. According to scientists, the formed organs functioned.

Mr Hanna said that synthetic embryos were not “real” embryos and could not develop in live animals, or at least they could not develop when transplanted into the uterus of female mice. He founded a company called Renewal Bio which develops synthetic human embryos to obtain tissues and cells for the treatment of diseases.

“In Israel and many other countries such as the US and the UK it is legal and we have the ethical approval to do so. The breakthrough in science provides an ethical and technical alternative to the use of embryos,” Hanna said.

However, not everyone supports these scientific studies. Dr. James Briscoe, head of the group at the Francis Crick Institute in London, considers it important to discuss the best way to regulate work prior to the development of human synthetic embryos.

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