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‘Synthetic’ human embryos created without eggs or sperm in huge breakthrough

Boffins believe they have successfully created “synthetic” human embryos – without the need for human eggs or sperm.

While it is currently unclear whether the embryos have the potential to continue maturing beyond these early stages, the development has been hailed as a major advance.

Scientists believe the embryos may be useful in the study of illness, genetic disorders and recurrent miscarriages.

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However, the work falls outside of current UK legislation, prompting concern over both legal and ethical issues.

Prof Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, of the University of Cambridge and the California Institute of Technology, discussed the work yesterday (June 14) at the International Society for Stem Cell Research's annual meeting in Boston.

According to The Guardian, they said: "We can create human embryo-like models by the reprogramming of (embryonic stem) cells”.

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, head of the laboratory of stem cell biology and developmental genetics at the Francis Crick Institute, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the research aimed to try and model early human development.

He said: "If you want to understand really what is going on as embryos develop normally, or when things go wrong earlier leading to a miscarriage or some congenital disorders for example, then currently people are having to use embryos that are donated for research, which are left over after in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

"These are quite rare and hard to get, so if you could use the stem cells to model those early stages of human development, then maybe you could get a lot of information without having to resort to using embryos that have been created by fertilisation."

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Professor Lovell-Badge said it was unclear yet whether the models could identify reasons for miscarriage and spoke about the ethical and regulatory considerations.

"What you're trying to do is model early human development," he said.

"So these structures that have been made so far are clearly not perfect models of human development, because they dohat far.

"However, the whole intention is to devise ways of making them more and more perfect models.

"And of course, then the closer you get to a human embryo, then you have to start (thinking) 'well, what's the difference between a normal human embryo and one of these models?'

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"And so should they be governed by the same rules that are used to govern research with human embryos or not? So that's the big sort of regulatory issue at the moment and a sort of ethical issue."

Dr Ildem Akerman, associate professor in functional genomics at the University of Birmingham, said that "in theory, these cells also have the potential to develop into an embryo".

She said the work has "significant implications" and "will provide scientists with a model to investigate the events that occur during the initial 14 days of life".

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Dr Akerman said that although the scientists had referred to "synthetic" embryos, "these cell clusters are not truly synthetic in the sense that they are created from scratch".

Professor Roger Sturmey, a senior research fellow in maternal and foetal health at the University of Manchester, said there is still much work to do "to determine the similarities and differences between synthetic embryos and embryos that form from the union of an egg and a sperm".

He said the new work has not yet been "fully appraised by the scientific community, but it does offer exciting prospects to answer these questions and may provide an important tool to study early development while reducing the reliance on human embryos for such research".

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