Scientists have successfully grown a mammal’s embryo outside the uterus for the first time. In a study published Wednesday in Nature, a team of researchers from Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel say they have successfully cultured over 1,000 mouse embryos for six days using a process that involves mechanical apparatus. The first part of the experiment saw the team remove the mice from their mothers’ wombs after five days. In an interview with The New York TimesDr Jacob Hanna, one of the researchers on the project, said his team had since successfully taken an embryo from a female mouse right after fertilization and cultured it for 11 days. In addition, embryos grown in the laboratory are always identical to their “real” counterparts.
The team spent seven years building the machine that enabled their research. It is a two-part system that consists of an incubator and a ventilation system. Each of the embryos floats in a bottle filled with a special liquid loaded with nutrients. A wheel gently spins the mice so that they do not attach themselves to the wall of their temporary home. This prevents the embryos from deforming and subsequently dying. Meanwhile, the attached ventilator provides the mice with oxygen while maintaining the flow and pressure of their surroundings.
It takes about 20 days for a mouse to make a gesture to the point where it can survive outside the womb. So far, the mechanical uterus that Dr Hanna and his team have created can support mice for 11 days of growth. It is at this time, in what would be more than half of a normal pregnancy, that the mice die. Embryos grow too big to survive on just the nutrients they absorb by diffusion. They need a blood supply, and that’s the next tech challenge the team plans to tackle. One potential solution on the table includes an artificial blood supply that could connect to the placentas of mice, Dr Hanna said. The NEW Times.
Before you run for the hills, know that Dr Hanna’s team didn’t create the device to disrupt the natural order of nature. Instead, they use their process to study how factors like genetic mutations and environmental conditions can affect the growth of a fetus inside the womb. Until this breakthrough, scientists had turned to species like worms and frogs – that is, non-mammals – to study the development of tissues and organs. A similar device could one day allow scientists to grow a human baby the same way, but it’s something that will be years and decades away, provided it’s even possible.