A recent breakthrough in stem cell research has helped scientists create the first-ever synthetic embryos produced without eggs or sperm. By using solely mouse stem cells, Dutch researchers from Maastricht University in the Netherlands have managed to craft an embryo-like structure called a blastocyst, Phys.org reports.
Blastocysts are hollow spheres that usually form within a few days after an egg is fertilized. These spheres are made up of less than 100 cells that divide into two groups: and outer layer of cells which goes on to form the placenta and a small cluster of cells in the middle, which later develops into the actual embryo.
However, the Dutch team has succeeded in creating blastocysts in the lab without using a fertilized egg. Instead, the researchers experimented with two types of mouse stem cells: embryonic stem cells, which have the potential to form a whole embryo, and trophoblast stem cells, which can develop into placenta.
The team combined the two types of mouse stem cells and succeeded in manipulating them to self-organize “into a very early embryo in a dish,” Nicolas Rivron, from the university’s MERLN Institute for Technology-Inspired Regenerative Medicine, said in a statement.
“We pulled them together and discovered a cocktail of molecules that triggered them to self-organize into early embryo cells,” he explained.
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According to Rivron, the team even managed to implant the artificial embryos in a mouse uterus. Even though the experiment didn’t yield a viable embryo, which was not the focus of this project, it has, however, other numerous applications, Rivron points out.
The researcher told CNN that this stem cell breakthrough, detailed in a study featured yesterday in the journal Nature, “has applications in many different fields, though we are especially interested in the field of infertility and the field of chronic disease.”
Rivron stated that his team’s research could be used to study the causes of human infertility and get to the bottom of why so many pregnancies fail.
“This breakthrough has opened up the black box of early pregnancy.”
Currently, up to two-thirds of in vitro fertilization treatments are unsuccessful, largely because the embryos fail to implant in the uterus.
Because human embryos are “so precious and scarce,” which makes them virtually inaccessible for in vivo research, the Dutch scientists plan to create enough artificial embryos to aid in fertility research.
“They will help us better understand the hidden processes at the start of life, to find solutions for fertility problems, and to develop new drugs without the use of lab animals,” Rivron stated.
In addition, his team’s momentous achievement could help decipher an array of adult conditions that originate from small flaws in the embryo, such as some forms of diabetes or cardiovascular disease.