• Race to a Cure Authors


The mimicry of reproductive science has been a sought-after discovery for many years. Based on recent developments, we are coming much closer to that complete discovery. Much like gene-editing tools such as CRISPR CAS-9, this may sound like an idea straight out of a sci-fi novel, yet it is very real and currently being researched. Still, the artificial reproduction of embryonic cells comes with many ethical and scientific concerns that will need to be publicly addressed.

Researchers have utilized humans' cells to create structures that mimic the early stages of development and have made these structures from different cell types.

Embryonic Stem Cells.

How Are They Made?

Two research groups, along with some other teams, documented their findings in the journal Nature on March 17th of this year. The research groups learned to grow cells that appear to look like human blastocysts. Jun Wu, a stem cell biologist at the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center, and his team used embryonic stem cells. The other reprogrammed skin cells to produce cells that would resemble earlier stages of human development.

The balls pictured below, blastocysts, form after an egg has been fertilized, but before cells can attach to the uterus. These structures have been replicated by scientists and are referred to as “iBlastoids” or “human blastoids” to differentiate from blastocysts developed through fertilization. Researchers worked with mouse cells before using human cells.

Image is courtesy of CBC.

What Is Their Purpose?

The purpose of creating these iBlastoids was to get as close to the actual embryo for research without making it too realistic to mitigate inevitable ethical debates.

In the past, studying human development at this stage was very difficult. Wu, a stem cell biologist at the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center, says, "We believe our model can open up this field." These experiments provide a glimpse into a vital part of human development and give others a means to understand infertility without the risk of harming others.

Research with human embryos and blastocysts does not have funding in the U.S as some states prohibit it. This leads to scientists using embryos from fertility clinics.

Ethical Concerns

The teams associated with this project have stressed that their work is for research and not for the benefit of reproduction. It's unclear if these cells could become viable. Researchers edit these embryo's genes to study early development in humans and that the cells are not implanted into any "uterus-like structure."

"They shouldn't be considered as equal to a blastocyst, although they are an excellent model for some aspects of biology," said Jose Polo, an epigeneticist at Monash University in Australia who led the second research team. However, there is a debate as to whether they should be considered to be actual human embryos.

"Both groups show how closely they resemble real embryos. If they are really as good as embryos, should they be treated as embryos? This brings new ethical issues," said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a human embryologist at Oregon Health and Science University. He was not involved in the research.

Final Thoughts

While it seems that this development is a far cry from creating an 'artificial' human embryo intended for growth, the models created by these research groups may serve many future research projects concerning reproductive science.

Article Author: Idil Gure

Article Editors: Stephanie Sahadeo, Olivia Ye