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New Models Could Help Scientists Study the Earliest Stages of Embryonic Development

“They will allow us to study now at scale the very early steps of human development without having to use blastocysts donated from IVF.”

A pair of research teams unveiled two new ways to replicate a key structure from the earliest days of embryonic development — an advance that could provide important new insight into human development and pregnancy loss, but which also raise thorny questions about research with embryo-like models.

The models described in the two papers, both published Wednesday in the journal Nature, are meant to mimic human blastocysts. Blastocysts are orbs that form about five days after an egg is fertilized. Each contains an outside layer of cells that eventually helps generate the placenta and an internal mass of cells that gives rise to the embryo itself. They’re what implants into the uterus as a pregnancy forms.

Researchers think that a better understanding of blastocysts, how their cells interact, and how they lay the groundwork for the next steps of a pregnancy could expand what’s known about human development as well as why so many miscarriages occur at this point. But inquiries so far have been limited. To study this phase now, scientists rely on excess blastocysts created through IVF — a limited resource — or on mouse models called blastoids. The teams behind the new work hope their blastocyst-like models could provide a ready supply of stand-ins for the real thing and a better imitation than mouse blastoids. With them, scientists could study the effects of different toxins, pathogens, and genetic mutations on the dividing cells.

The research teams, one steered by Jose Polo of Monash University and one by Jun Wu of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, dubbed their models “iBlastoids” and “human blastoids,” respectively.

“They will allow us to study now at scale the very early steps of human development without having to use blastocysts donated from IVF,” Polo said.

READ MORE AT STAT

PHOTO CREDIT: Prescott Pym

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