Israeli scientists used an artificial uterus to grow 250-cell embryos into mouse fetuses with fully developed organs. This development could pave the way for people to become pregnant outside the womb.
« We bred hundreds of mice this way, a method that took seven years to develop, and I am still fascinated every time I see it, » said stem cell biologist Prof. Jacob Hanna from the Weizmann Institute of Science versus The Times of Israel.
« This could be relevant to other mammals, including humans, although we recognize that there are ethical issues related to human growth outside the body, » he said.
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Hanna said his research will improve understanding of organ formation in mammals – and could facilitate medical advancement – as it provides unprecedented views of the unfolding process without being constrained by the need to map the inside of the uterus .
While scientists have tried to breed mammals outside of the body for decades, success has been limited to either early-stage embryos, grown for a short time in a laboratory, or fetuses, after their organs have been formed and then out the womb removed were grown in a laboratory.
When the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital created an artificial uterus in 2017 to successfully raise fetal lambs for over four weeks, the lambs already had their organs at the beginning of the experiment.
But Hanna started with embryos that consisted only of stem cells and watched « with astonishment » how the organs of the mice – animals with a rapid gestation of only 19 days – grew before his eyes.
“We took mouse embryos from the mother on the fifth day of development, if there were only 250 cells, and kept them in the incubator from the fifth to the 11th day. By this point, they had grown all of their organs.
“On the 11th day they make their own blood and have a beating heart, a fully developed brain. Anyone would look at them and say, « This is clearly a mouse fetus with all the attributes of a mouse. » It has evolved from a ball of cells into an advanced fetus. »
The fetuses were healthy but died after 11 days as this is currently the longest time they can develop in the artificial womb and they cannot be transplanted back into the uterus of mice. But Hanna hopes to further develop his technology to bring mice to full runtime.
His method is to place the embryos in a special liquid to nourish the embryo cells in a laboratory dish and they float on the liquid allow. With this step they succeeded in duplicating the first stage of embryonic development, in which the embryo multiplies tenfold.
“The key to our success is that we have developed this special incubator system in which each embryo develops in a bottle with liquid and the bottle spins to make sure it doesn’t stick to the side. The incubator creates the right conditions for its development.
« What made this possible is the seven-year journey during which we developed the liquid that really provides the embryo with all the nutrients, hormones and sugar it needs, and the incubator, a bespoke electronic device that controls gas concentration and pressure and temperature. «
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