In the last few years two branches of science have been making headlines and causing astonishment as well as fear: artificial intelligence and genetics. Each one for different advances but both for the same reason: their ability to profoundly alter our lives. And now genetic technology, after creating an organism immune to all viruses, has done it again by implant synthetic embryos in the uterus of monkeys.
For the first time, a team of scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences led by Zhen Liu have achieved create embryos made from monkey stem cells (instead of a sperm and an egg) for the first time. The findings have been published in Nature.
Liu’s team began by working with embryonic stem cells originally extracted from macaque monkey embryos. These cells have the potential to become virtually any type of cell, including those that make up organs, blood, and the nervous system. The second step was grow these cells under very specific laboratory conditions that modify and improve their development.
Over several days, the cells began to develop much like embryos. The resulting cells have been called blastoids because of their resemblance to blastocysts, one of the earliest stages of embryos. When Liu’s team rolled out these “synthetic embryos” in the wombs, some of the female macaques showed the first signs of pregnancy. It’s as far as laboratory-grown embryos have gone in primates, and the work suggests that it may one day be possible to generate fetuses in this way.
The blastoids were subjected to a series of tests to determine how similar they were to normal embryos. Liu’s team analyzed more than 6,000 individual cells. The results showed many similarities between the two. In three of the females that received the implant this developed successfully up to 20 days when the blastoids stopped developing. This suggests that the blastoids are not yet perfect replicas of normal embryos. The reasons are various. On the one hand, the lack of fertilization of the egg by a sperm, on the other, the way of expressing genes from the stem cells… The reasons are various and more research is needed.
But most likely, there are no more opportunities for it. Many of the experiments on animals that require this knowledge are unethical. And while the knowledge they bring would help us learn more about the development of human embryos, the reality is that scientists are not allowed to study human embryos in a laboratory beyond 14 days after fertilization. And recently published international guidelines from the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) emphasize that human blastoids should never be implanted in a person or any other animal.