Scientists say they have created the world’s first human synthetic embryos from stem cells without using sperm or eggs.
These embryo-like structures lack organs such as a beating heart or a brain, but include cells that would typically go on to form the placenta, yolk sac and the embryo itself.
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“We can create human embryo-like models by the reprogramming of [embryonic stem] cells,” Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, of the University of Cambridge and the California Institute of Technology, said in an address on Wednesday at the International Society for Stem Cell Research annual meeting in Boston.
This research, yet to be published in a journal, raises legal and ethical questions, as many countries currently lack regulations looking at the creation and manipulation of synthetic embryos.
“Unlike human embryos arising from in vitro fertilisation (IVF), where there is an established legal framework, there are currently no clear regulations governing stem cell-derived models of human embryos. There is an urgent need for regulations to provide a framework for the creation and use of stem cell-derived models of human embryos,” CNN reported James Briscoe, associate research director at the Francis Crick Institute, saying in a statement.
Race to cultivate human embryos
In 2022, Zernicka-Goetz’s research group and the Weizmann Institute in Israel demonstrated that stem cells from mice could self-organise into early embryo-like structures, exhibiting features like an intestinal tract, the initial stages of a brain and a beating heart.
Since then, the teams have raced to achieve the same results with human cells.
In Wednesday’s conference, Zernicka-Goetz described cultivating the embryos to a developmental stage just beyond the equivalent of 14 days of development for a natural embryo.
“Our human model is the first three-lineage human embryo model that specifies amnion and germ cells, precursor cells of egg and sperm,” Zernicka-Goetz told the Guardian.
“It’s beautiful and created entirely from embryonic stem cells.”
Roger Sturmey, senior research fellow at the University of Manchester, said there is still much work to be done “to determine the similarities and differences between synthetic embryos and embryos that form from the union of an egg and a sperm”.
“This work from Zernicka-Goetz hasn’t yet been fully appraised by the scientific community, but it does offer exciting prospects to answer these questions and may provide an important tool to study early development while reducing the reliance on human embryos for such research,” he said.