© Weizmann Institute of Science
Scientist Emilie Wildschutz and a team of researchers made headlines a few weeks ago when they managed to create an artificial male embryo. She talked to our colleagues at RTL about the research.
What may sound like science fiction is in actuality a big step in embryology that could open many doors in the realm of medicine. It could also shine a light on an area of medicine that still remains a mystery for many researchers today.
At the beginning of September, a team of researchers in Israel made headlines around the world, when they created a male embryo out of human stem cells. For 14 days they were able to grow the embryo ex utero. It was indistinguishable from a naturally conceived embryo.
Among the team of 12 researchers headed by Prof. Jacob Hanna of the Weizmann Institute of Science, is also a Luxembourgish scientist: the 26-year-old Emilie Wildschutz. She spoke with our colleagues at RTL about her research, the opportunities it provides, and the ethical dilemmas it may create.
"The cells do the work by themselves"
One of these questions is easier to answer than the other. Through this new research, scientists could now be able to look into the first few weeks of pregnancies. A time period in which women oftentimes don't realise they are pregnant, and thus it is difficulty accessible for research. That is putting aside ethical issues of researching that particular time period. It is, however, a critical period as it is within those first few weeks that many miscarriages occur.
Den Dr. Jacob Hanna (lénks) mat engem deel vu sengem Team. D'Emilie Wildschutz ass ganz riets. / © Weizmann Institute of Science
Creating a stem cell embryo is incredibly fascinating to the young researcher, as from a certain point onwards the cells do the work on their own. She explains that stem cells have the potential to become all kinds of cells. In the first few weeks of gestation, the embryo only consists of four types of cells. To be able to recreate this stage, one only needs to put the different types of cells together at the right ratio and the embryo develops without any further help.
"Once we have the right starting point, someone puts the cells together, and they do everything on their own, we do not have to give them any further directions."
The stem cells used by the team either come from donations after failed IVF rounds or from charging an adult cell. “We can extract a cell from the skin and reprogram it so that it has the potential to become any other cell.” It transforms into a so-called naive cell.
D'Zellen um sechsten Dag vun hirer Entwécklung. / © Weizmann Institute of Science
The team’s biggest issue at the moment is the efficiency of their method. Only around 1% of their attempts developed into embryos. They need to find a way to increase the output, so that these artificial embryos could be used in medical tests. One possible field of research would be in pharmacology: which effects do certain medications have on the early development of a human embryo?
"I think a lot of people are afraid because they are picturing all kinds of scenarios."
But before that, some questions need clearing up. The growth of the embryo was purposefully stopped after 14 days. An international standard was put in place to stop all experiments on embryos after two weeks. "But so far, we do not have any regulations that tell us we have to stop after that time with stem cell embryos."
So, this is the question now: what is the difference between an artificial embryo and a natural one. The team managed to not only grow an embryo, but the yolk sac and the placenta as well. "It’s very similar to a natural embryo but we cannot say it’s exactly same. That is why we say that it is a model. We know that a natural embryo could become a real human being. We cannot assume the same about our model as we are never going to let it develop that far."
En aus Stammzellen hiergestallten mënschlechen Embryo um 14. Dag vu senger Entwécklung. Déi blo Zelle sinn den Embryo, déi giel Zellen den Dueder-Sak an déi gro Zelle ronderëm sinn d'Plazenta. / © Weizmann Institute of Science
In a publication of about a year ago the researchers were able to get the process further along. They had tested the same process with stem cells from a mouse. Back then, the organs had started to develop. "We had a beating heart, all made from stem cells. It was the point where we said that it’s possible".
How far they could go in their new research and whether artificial embryos will be treated the same way as natural ones, remains an issue of the future. It will certainly become a topic of discussion among scientists. Unfortunately, Wildschutz's topic of research is often misunderstood among the broad public. "I think a lot of people are afraid because they are picturing all kinds of untrue scenarios. That it will be like in Brave New World and that we are creating clones of babies. But that is not the aim of this research."
"It was a race. Who would be in first place?"
After the publication on mice stem cells, the question wasn't if but who would be the first to reproduce the model with human stem cells. "There was immense pressure. We knew that many other teams were working on the same thing. It was a race. Who would be in first place?” That year alone five new papers were published in this domain. "Throughout the year, we also held conferences, where we unveiled where we were at in our research, while trying not to say too much."
For Emilie Wildschutz the competition in her domain is a bit disappointing. She says it’s a little sad thinking about it, as all the different teams could just exchange with one another. She is wondering whether the competition and the lack of exchange is speeding up or slowing down the process. But she feels confident saying that the competition in the domain will subside after a while. "In very recent discoveries, the competition is bigger. In domains that are more established, collaborations are more frequent."
Listen to Emilie Wildschutz's interview in Luxembourgish below: