Scientists Have Created Synthetic Embryos. Here’s What That Could Mean for Humans

May 3, 2018, 8:38 PM UTC
California Embryo Bank Provides Donated Eggs For Stem Cell Research
LA JOLLA, CA - FEBRUARY 28: Embryologist Ric Ross holds a dish with human embryos at the La Jolla IVF Clinic February 28, 2007 in La Jolla, California. The clinic accepts donated embryos from around the country through The Stem Cell resource which are then given to stem cell research labs for research. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
Photograph by Sandy Huffaker — Getty Images

Dutch scientists have made yet another advance in embryonic science, creating synthetic embryos (mouse embryos, that is) without the need for sperm or eggs. Down the line, the achievement could have implications for human infertility, too.

Using mouse cells that weren’t gametes (the traditional sex cells), researchers from the MERLN Institute for Technology-Inspired Regenerative Medicine in the Netherlands were able to create “blastocyst-like structures”—which form during the early developmental stage for mammals. This was done using just two types of mouse stem cells, and the resulting mass of cells resembled what you’d expect from the more traditional baby-forming process. What’s more, these structures were then attached to the wombs of female mice and grew for several days in what the scientists claim is a medical first.

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So how exactly might such biomedical technology benefit humans? For one, it could assist in infertility research, including the kind centering on miscarriages that occur at the implantation stage of development. “We can now generate extremely large numbers of these embryos and study them in detail,” lead researcher Dr. Nicolas Rivron told the BBC. “It could help us understand why some embryos fail to implant and let us screen for drugs that might help with fertility.”

But that reality may be a ways away. For one thing, creating and implanting artificial human embryos would require regulatory clearance. Nations like China and the U.K. have been somewhat more lenient on this issue than the United States (the U.K. paved the way for three-parent babies to combat devastating genetic disorders back in 2016), but most things involving even a whiff of genetic engineering still come with a fair bit of bioethical controversy.

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