Researchers grow ‘synthetic’ mouse embryo with brain and beating heart

Scientists say research could lead to development of organs for transplants

After more than a decade of research, University of Cambridge scientists have created “embryos from mouse stem cells that form a brain, a beating heart, and the foundations of all the other organs of the body.”

Not only could their research lead to a better understanding of why some pregnancies fail, but it could lead to the development of synthetic organs for transplants.

“Our mouse embryo model not only develops a brain, but also a beating heart, all the components that go on to make up the body,” said Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, professor in mammalian development and stem cell biology in Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience. “It’s just unbelievable that we’ve got this far. This has been the dream of our community for years, and major focus of our work for a decade and finally we’ve done it.”

To create the embryo, Zernicka-Goetz’s team took three types of stem cells present during the early development of mammals — trophoblast, extraembryonic endoderm and inducible-XEN — and guided the cells to begin “talking” to one another.

According to the university’s press release in Science Daily, the stem cells self-organized until they developed beating hearts and the foundations of a brain. In addition, they formed a yolk sac, where an embryo gets its nutrition.

What makes the Cambridge embryo different, the team wrote, was the formation of the entire brain, including the anterior portion.

“The stem cell embryo model is important because it gives us accessibility to the developing structure at a stage that is normally hidden from us due to the implantation of the tiny embryo into the mother’s womb,” Zernicka-Goetz said. “This accessibility allows us to manipulate genes to understand their developmental roles in a model experimental system.”

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