Embryos grown outside womb for record-breaking 2 weeks

New lab techniques have provided the first good look at a crucial but mysterious stage in the development of human embryos, by allowing scientists to grow embryos in a petri dish for a week longer than was ever possible before.

Study sheds light on 2nd week of embryonic development, which had previously been a 'black box'

Molecular markers delineate the different cell types within an attached human embryo, shown here 12 days after fertilization. A structure called the epiblast, for example, is shown in green. The key developmental landmarks observed using this novel system accurately match those of normal human development, up to 12 days after fertilization. (Rockefeller University)

New lab techniques have provided the first good look at a crucial but mysterious stage in the development of human embryos, scientists reported Wednesday.

The researchers said follow-up research might eventually lead to new treatments for infertility and perhaps new forms of birth control.

Scientists had previously only been able to study human embryos as a culture in a lab dish until the seventh day of development when they had to implant them into the mother's uterus to survive and develop further.

But using a culture method previously tested to grow mouse embryos outside of a mother, the teams were able to conduct almost hour by hour observations of human embryo development to see how they develop and organize themselves up to day 13.

The work extends the amount of embryonic development that can be observed in a laboratory.

In the first week after fertilization, an egg grows into a hollow ball of cells, and scientists have long been able to watch that happen. But then this early embryo — about the size of a grain of salt — attaches itself to a woman's uterus and undergoes radical change, and that stage has been a "complete black box," said Ali Brivanlou of Rockefeller University in New York.

He's a member of one of two scientific teams that reported on Wednesday that they were able to extend embryonic development into a second week in a lab dish. Neither team simulated implantation, because the embryos attached themselves to the plastic of lab dishes rather than to uterine tissue.

But even without any direction from a mother, the embryos proceeded with critical steps toward making a body. They flattened into disks, which then assumed a volcano-like shape. They produced primitive internal structures and specialized cells. Brivanlou's team spotted an unexpected type of cell that he said had not been detected in any other mammal species. Researchers have "no clue" what it does, he said.

"We can now ask how the fundamental structures of the embryo are formed after implantation," said Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz of Cambridge University in England, who led the second team.

Both groups worked independently to modify a lab technique Zernicka-Goetz's lab had developed for working with mouse embryos. Brivanlou and colleagues reported results in the journal Nature, while Zernicka-Goetz's team reported in Nature Cell Biology. Both teams used embryos donated by couples who'd used fertility clinics.

14-day rule

Brivanlou's team terminated its research at the embryonic stage corresponding to 14 days after fertilization, and Zernicka-Goetz's experiments were stopped on days 12 or 13. That's because of the "14-day rule," an international ethical standard that limits laboratory studies of human embryos.

Experts not involved in the research were impressed by the results.

The "beautiful work" provides new ways to look at how early embryos develop, said reproductive biologist Bruce Murphy, a University of Montreal researcher who is president of the Society for the Study of Reproduction.

"You're seeing the way cells begin to organize in the very early stages of producing a new baby, and that is fascinating for anybody," said John Aplin of the University of Manchester in England.

"It gives us all kinds of new ideas to work on," said D. Randall Armant of Wayne State University in Detroit.

But the research also raises the issue of an international law banning scientists from developing human embryos beyond 14 days, and suggests this limit may have to be reviewed.

Zernicka-Goetz, who spoke to reporters in London, said a wealth of new information could be discovered if human embryos could be grown in a lab dish for just a few days more.

"Longer cultures could provide absolutely critical information for basic human biology," she said. "But this would of course raise the next question - of where we should put the next limit."

Sarah Norcross, director of the Progress Educational Trust,a charity which campaigns for people affected by infertility and genetic conditions, agreed that the research raised questions around the 14-day limit and said the international scientific community should "decide whether it is necessary and desirable" to extend it, and if so, by how much.

"A public discussion of the rights and wrongs of this would need to follow before any change in law could be contemplated," she told Reuters.

With files from Reuters