The photographs alone tell a fantastic story—a mouse embryo, complete with beating heart cells, a head, and the beginning of limbs, alive and growing in a glass jar.

According to a scientific group in Israel, which took the picture, the researchers have grown mice in an artificial womb for as long as 11 or 12 days, about half the animal’s natural gestation period.

It’s record for development of a mammal outside the womb, and according to the research team, human embryos could be next—raising huge new ethical questions.

“This sets the stage for other species,” says Jacob Hanna, a developmental biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, who led the research team. “I hope that it will allow scientists to grow human embryos until week five.”

Growing human embryos in the lab for that long, deep into the first trimester, would put science on a collision course with the abortion debate. Hanna believes lab-grown embryos could be a research substitute for tissue derived from abortions, and possibly a source of tissue for medical treatments as well.

How they did it

Hanna’s team grew the mouse embryos longer by adding blood serum from human umbilical cords, agitating them in glass jars, and pumping in a pressurized oxygen mixture. Hanna likens the process to putting a covid-19 patient on a ventilation machine.

“That forces the oxygen into the cells,” he says. “Then the patient is much happier. You can see it has a blood system and all the major organ systems are working.”

A video made by researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science shows mouse embryos with beating hearts. The lab is pushing how far embryos can be grown in the lab.

The mouse embryos only died after they became too large for the oxygen to diffuse through them, since they lack the natural blood supply a placenta could provide.

The work creates a scientific window onto the early embryo, which is normally hidden inside the uterus. In a publication today in the journal Nature, the Israeli team describes a series of experiments in which they added toxins, dyes, viruses, and human cells to the developing embryonic mice, all to study what would occur.

“It’s a tour de force—very, very impressive,” says Alfonso Martinez Arias, a developmental biologist and stem cell researcher based at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain, who was not involved in the research.

Next: humans

Hanna says scientists will want to develop human embryos this way too. He recognizes that images of lab-grown human embryos with a roughly recognizable shape—head, tail, and limb buds—could be shocking. The human equivalent of Hanna’s 12-day-old mice would be a first-trimester embryo

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By: Antonio Regalado
Title: A mouse embryo has been grown in an artificial womb—humans could be next
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Published Date: Wed, 17 Mar 2021 16:01:00 +0000

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