Embryo-like structures created from human stem cells

Biologists have developed a way to use human stem cells to make structures that mimic early embryos. The embryo-like structures are the first to produce rudimentary reproductive cells; and also go through stages that resemble several other landmarks in early human development.

Research groups are seeking to make ever more sophisticated artificial embryo-like structures that can be used, not for reproduction, but to study early-stage embryonic development. The latest method for making these structures, published in Nature1 today, has a much higher success rate than previous attempts, and can reliably produce them on demand.

Using these structures for research should be less controversial than working on embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures, says Jianping Fu, a stem-cell biologist and bioengineer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who led the latest study.

Pharmaceutical companies might also one day use the structures to test whether drugs are safe for pregnant women. And physicians could use them to investigate why some woman have multiple miscarriages.

“This study could help to understand and help prevent early pregnancy loss,” says Amander Clark, a stem-cell biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who wrote a News & Views article2 to accompany the study. “Women who have repeat early pregnancy failure should now have hope that scientists are working on approaches to help understand why this occurs,” she adds.

But the research is likely to raise its own ethical issues. Although these structures could not grow into a person, they develop features in the lab that some people consider the point when an embryo becomes an individual.

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