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'Artificial embryos' may reduce the need for animals in research

Copyright: Mehmet Girgin, EPFL
News from: University of Cambridge

A team of scientists at the University of Cambridge have developed a new technique that could reduce the number of mammalian embryos used in research. The technique, reported today in the journal Nature, allows scientists to create an ‘artificial embryo’ that goes through several important developmental stages like a real embryo.

Working with researchers from the University of Geneva and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), the team at Cambridge have shown that mouse embryonic stem cells can organise themselves into structures called gastruloids.

Gastruloids share several important features and behaviours with embryos, and can be experimented on in the same way, but they are made from stem cells that can be grown in the lab instead of being taken from a pregnant mouse. Mice do not survive the procedure to remove embryos, so this could significantly reduce the number of animals used in developmental research.

“These results significantly extend our earlier findings. We were surprised to see how far gastruloids develop, their complex organization and the range of different tissues and organ primordia that they contain,” says Professor Alfonso Martinez Arias, leader of the University of Cambridge team, at its Department of Genetics.

The work builds on earlier findings by the Cambridge research group, which shows embryonic stem cells in culture display some abilities to self-organise. A vital discovery arising from the new research is that gastruloids and embryos can both develop from a simple ball of cells to establishing a basic body form.

Embryos undergo a process to develop a distinct top and bottom, front and back, and left and right side. This normally  in six-to-ten day old embryos, and requires cells to communicate and organise themselves in a highly complex way. Research into this stage of development is important for fertility research and prenatal medicine, because errors in how the cells organise can lead to birth defects and miscarriage.

The researchers say these artificial embryos will provide a viable alternative to animal research, in accordance with the principle of the ‘3Rs’ (the reduction, replacement and refinement of the use of animals in research). The finding that so much of the development of an embryo can be simulated using stem cells will also increase researchers’ ability to study the genetics of normal development and disease, as growing stem cells is faster and cheaper than breeding mice.

This work was largely funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the European Research Council.

Adapted from a press release from the University of Geneva.


Notes to editors

Research paper: Beccari, L, Moris, N, Girgin, M, et al. Multi-axial self-organisation properties of mouse embryonic stem cells into gastruloids. Nature: Multi-axial self-organization properties of mouse embryonic stem cells into gastruloids.


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Tags: press release University of Cambridge health 3Rs animal welfare stem cells research technologies