Synthetic human embryos created for the first time

The embryos, which are not the product of sexual reproduction using sperm and egg cells, offer the promise of important insight into genetic disorders.
John Loeffler
Human embryos under a microscope
Human embryos under a microscope


For the first time, researchers have created synthetic human embryos from stem cells, pushing us into an ethical gray area but offering the promise of important insights into the critical early stages of human development.

The synthetic embryos, which are not the product of natural sexual reproduction but engineered from stem cells in a laboratory setting, could provide medical researchers with critical insights into the first few weeks of embryonic development, during which a host of genetic disorders are thought to manifest.

“The idea is that if you really model normal human embryonic development using stem cells, you can gain an awful lot of information about how we begin development, what can go wrong, without having to use early embryos for research,” Robin Lovell-Badge, head of stem cell biology and developmental genetics at London’s Francis Crick Institute, told The Guardian.

The new synthetic embryos also fall into a legally unregulated area of research. Whereas naturally cultivated human embryos can only be used for research for 14 days in the UK, current regulations are silent on the matter of synthetic human embryos

The research hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal but was instead presented by Professor Magdalena Żernicka-Goetz, of the California Institute of Technology and the University of Cambridge, in an address to the International Society for Stem Cell Research’s annual conference in Boston this month. It follows up other similar attempts at creating synthetic embryos using stem cells from mice and monkeys, but this is the first time a synthetic embryo has been made from human stem cells.

The synthetic embryos in question do not have a digestive tract, a heartbeat, or the beginnings of a brain, but they do include cells that could go on to form those structures. Earlier attempts with animal embryos have not produced viable pregnancies.

“That’s very difficult to answer. It’s going to be hard to tell whether there’s an intrinsic problem with them or whether it’s just technical,” Lovell-Badge said.

The speed of progress on this front has prompted many, including Żernicka-Goetz, to push for regulatory guardrails around the development and use of synthetic embryos in a clinical setting, those such a development still looks to be a long way off.

“If the whole intention is that these models are very much like normal embryos, then in a way they should be treated the same,” Lovell-Badge said. “Currently in legislation they’re not. People are worried about this.”

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