Stem cell breakthrough: Mouse embryo grown using stem cells.

A huge scientific breakthrough in stem cell technology has taken place in a recent study carried out by the University of Cambridge.

For the first time ever, scientists have managed to replicate the transformation of a fertilised egg into a living embryo in mice; the critical starting point to all human and animal life.

The process was carried out using embryonic stem cells which are able to develop into any cells in the body. The cells were grown outside of the mouse in a gel solution for 7 days where they morphed into primitive embryos; separated by 2 anatomical sections which, if allowed to develop further, would go on to develop into the placenta and the embryonic mouse.

 The study cut out the need for a fertilised egg which would usually be needed in this type of study. These are often in short supply as they require IVF clinic donations. Using stem cells could open up a multitude of possibilities in terms of future research.

The goal of the scientists who conducted the research,  is to study the early developmental stages of an embryo, which are very difficult to observe within the mother’s womb, as it is still too small for an ultrasound to document.

Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, a developmental biologist who led the work at the University of Cambridge, said:

“This is the time of implantation when the embryo is invading the body of the mother,” said Zernicka-Goetz. “Weeks later you can observe it with ultrasound but at this stage it is very mysterious. It’s a developmental black box.”

Further Insight

It is estimated that two thirds of miscarriages happen at this early stage in pregnancy before the embryo has implanted. It is therefore a stage that scientists are eager to investigate further. It is hoped that using stem cells in this way will give a better insight, and potentially reduce the risk of miscarriage in the future.

“To really understand the key principles of pregnancy at this stage would be very helpful,” said Zernicka-Goetz.

“We are very optimistic that this will allow us to study key events of this critical stage of human development without actually having to work on embryos,” said Zernicka-Goetz. “Knowing how development normally occurs will allow us to understand why it so often goes wrong.”

The Cambridge team is now hoping to create similar artificial embryos with human cells.

Ajan Reginald regularly reports on breakthroughs in the stem cell industry, and is at the forefront of stem cell research specifically looking at ways that stem cells can be used to regenerate damaged heart tissue.