Renewal Bio is on a mission to the edge of science and ethics with aims to develop lifelike synthetic embryos cultivated in jars. This startup really wants to clone you into an embryo for the purposes of organ harvesting.
An Israeli biotech company claims it plans to develop human embryo-stage replicas in order to extract tissues for use in transplant therapies as part of its pursuit for novel kinds of longevity medicine.
The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot biologist Jacob Hanna recently revealed significant developments in stem-cell technology and artificial wombs, which the business Renewal Bio is exploring. Hanna demonstrated earlier this week that his lab could create extremely lifelike mouse embryos using mouse stem cells and maintain them developing in a mechanical womb for several days until they formed beating hearts, flowing blood, and cranial folds.
For the first time, an advanced embryo without sperm, eggs, or even a uterus has been replicated. Monday saw the release of Hanna’s findings in the journal Cell.
“This experiment has huge implications,” says Bernard Siegel, a patient advocate and founder of the World Stem Cell Summit. “One wonders what mammal could be next in line.”
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Humans are the solution. According to Hanna, who is already attempting to replicate the method, commencing with human cells, the ultimate goal is to create artificial models of human embryos that are the same age as a 40- to 50-day pregnancy. Basic organs are created at that point, along with tiny limbs and fingers.
“We view the embryo as the best 3D bio printer,” says Hanna. “It’s the best entity to make organs and proper tissue.”
Simple tissues like cartilage or bone can already be printed or grown, but it has proved challenging to create more complicated cell types and organs. However, a developing embryo naturally begins to form the body.
“The vision of the company is ‘Can we use these organized embryo entities that have early organs to get cells that can be used for transplantation?’ We view it as perhaps a universal starting point,” says Hanna.
To restart an aged person’s immune system, embryonic blood cells could be harvested, multiplied, and transferred. Another idea is to create embryonic replicas of women who are experiencing age-related infertility. Researchers may then retrieve the model embryo’s gonads, which could later be developed in the lab or through transplantation into the woman’s body to create young eggs.
The startup, which has received seed funding from venture firm NFX, has briefed other investors, and its presentation materials declare that its mission is “renewing humanity—making all of us young and healthy.”
Renewal Bio’s actual technical strategy is unknown, and the company’s website is merely a calling card. “It’s very low on details for a reason. We don’t want to overpromise, and we don’t want to freak people out,” says Omri Amirav-Drory, a partner at NFX who is acting as CEO of the new company. “The imagery is sensitive here.”
Some experts believe that growing human embryo models to an advanced stage will be challenging, and that it would be more beneficial to avoid the controversy that would result from closely mimicking genuine embryos.
“It’s absolutely not necessary, so why would you do it?” says Nicolas Rivron, a stem-cell researcher at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna. He contends that scientists should just generate “the minimal embryonic structure necessary” to provide cells of interest.
Amirav-Drory, for one, says he has not seen a technique with so much promise since CRISPR gene-editing technology first debuted. “The ability to create a synthetic embryo from cells—no egg, no sperm, no uterus—it’s really amazing,” he says. “We think it can be a massive, transformative platform technology that can be applied to both fertility and longevity.”
Hanna’s lab has been fusing new kinds of bioreactors with cutting-edge stem-cell research to produce the series of innovations.
The stem-cell expert originally displayed a “mechanical womb” a year prior, where he demonstrated how to successfully nurture natural mouse embryos for many days without a female mouse. The technique uses rotating jars to maintain a blood serum and oxygen environment for the embryos.
Hanna employed the same artificial womb in the second study, which was published last week, but this time he grew embryos made to appear like each other from stem cells.
Surprisingly, stem cells will spontaneously combine and attempt to build an embryo when they are cultivated together in appropriately designed containers, giving rise to objects known as embryoids, blastoids, or synthetic embryo models. Many scientists maintain that despite looks, these formations bear little resemblance to actual embryos and have no chance of ever fully developing.
However, by introducing these artificial mouse embryos to his mechanical womb, Hanna was able to develop them further than ever before, to the stage where hearts began to beat, blood began to move, and there was the beginning of a brain and a tail.
“The embryos really look great,” Hanna notes, whose findings this week astonished other scientists. “They are really, really similar to natural embryos.” Analyses demonstrate that the synthetic variants are 95% comparable to regular mouse embryos in terms of cell types.
Nonetheless, methods for creating synthetic embryos remain ineffective. Fewer than one in every hundred attempts to duplicate a mouse embryo were successful, and even the model embryos that developed for the greatest periods of time eventually developed defects, including heart difficulties, possibly because they could not grow any farther without an adequate blood supply.
Hanna is now utilizing his own blood or skin cells (together with those of a few selected volunteers) as the beginning point for creating synthetic human embryos in a new round of tests. That means his lab might soon be teeming with hundreds or thousands of microscopic mini-me clones of himself.
Hanna is unconcerned with the notion. Despite the fact that he can replicate the beginnings of animals in test tubes, he regards these as beings without a future. He believes they are unlikely to succeed. Furthermore, there is currently no method to transition from jar life to real life. No synthetic embryo could survive if implanted to a uterus without a placenta and an umbilical cord attached to a mother.
“We are not trying to make human beings. That is not what we are trying to do.” says Hanna. “To call a day-40 embryo a mini-me is just not true.”
The question of whether synthetic embryos have any rights or whether using them as research subjects for science and medicine is morally acceptable may come up as this technology develops. The National Institutes of Health in the US has occasionally refused to provide funding for research on artificial embryos because it feels that such research would be too similar to the actual things.
Even though Hanna does not believe a lab-created artificial embryo will ever be considered a human being, he has a backup plan to make sure there is no misunderstanding. For example, starting cells could be genetically altered to prevent the development of a head in the ensuing model embryo. Limiting its potential might help prevent ethical conundrums. “We think this is important and have invested a lot in this,” says Hanna. Genetic changes can be made that lead to “no lungs, no heart, or no brain.”
Some of Hanna’s pupils have already been hired by the new business Renewal, which also obtained a license for his technology from the Weizmann Institute. It will start investing money in enhancing the incubators, creating sensors to monitor the embryoid development, and devising strategies to increase their survival duration in the lab.
Amirav-Drory claims that because the company is still in its infancy, it is continually discovering the potential applications for the technology. He and Hanna, the scientific founder of Renewal, have been speaking with other researchers and medical professionals to find out what they would do if they got access to a huge number of synthetic embryos that had been developed for days or even weeks.
“We’ve been asking people, ‘Imagine if we can get to this or that milestone. What does it unlock?’ And people’s eyes light up,” he says.
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