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Groundbreaking Discovery: Lab-Generated Embryo Models Offer Insight into Early Human Life

In a groundbreaking discovery, researchers at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, led by Prof Jacob Hanna, have developed models of human embryos from stem cells. These models, while not identical to actual human embryos, imitate the 3D organization of features found in embryos aged one to two weeks, providing a unique perspective into the earliest stages of human life.

The researchers utilized "naive" human stem cells, which possess the ability to transform into various cell types. When combined in a lab, around 1% of these stem cells self-organized into structures resembling human embryos. At two weeks, these models, approximately half a millimeter wide, developed features such as a placenta, a yolk sac, and an outer membrane known as the chorionic sac, similar to actual embryos of the same age.

The potential applications of these models are vast. They could significantly aid research into the causes of miscarriages and birth defects, areas that have been largely unexplored due to the difficulty of accessing human embryos at such early stages. Furthermore, the models could be used to grow organs for transplant by altering their genetics to prevent the development of a brain or nervous system, potentially revolutionizing organ transplants.

Another intriguing application involves assessing the impact of medicines on actual human embryos. These models could offer a safe, ethical means to test drug safety during pregnancy, as pregnant women are often excluded from clinical trials.

Despite their potential, these models are not flawless replicas of human embryos. For example, while the trophoblast, a placenta precursor, was present, it was not properly organized. Additionally, these models cannot implant into a womb, making pregnancy impossible. Nonetheless, they returned a positive result on a pregnancy test, indicating successful growth.

The research, published in the journal Nature, is hailed as the first to create a "complete" embryo model. It involved reprogramming naive stem cells to potentially become any type of tissue in the body and guiding them into becoming four types of cells found in the earliest stages of human embryos.

These models were allowed to develop until they resembled a 14-day-old embryo, the legal limit for normal embryo research in many countries. They could help scientists understand cell emergence, organ building, and genetic diseases. The study also found that other parts of the embryo will not form unless early placenta cells surround it, a finding that could improve in vitro fertilisation (IVF) success rates.

While Prof Robin Lovell Badge from the Francis Crick Institute acknowledges that the models "look pretty good" and "normal", the current 99% failure rate necessitates improvement. The research also raises ethical questions about mimicking embryo development beyond the 14-day stage, as embryo models are legally distinct from embryos.

Despite these challenges, Prof Alfonso Martinez Arias from Pompeu Fabra University lauds the research as "a most important piece of research". The potential benefits are immense, ranging from uncovering the cause of birth defects and infertility types to possibly leading to new technologies for growing transplant tissues and organs.

In conclusion, while the research is still in preliminary stages and raises significant ethical considerations, it marks a substantial advancement in our understanding of early human development. As we further explore these models' potential, we may be on the cusp of a new era in medical science, potentially bringing hope to countless individuals worldwide.