Scientists use artificial womb for research into embryos

Scientists at Nottingham University have developed an artificial womb to aid research into how early embryos develop.

The new device is effectively a soft polymer bowl that mimics the tissue of a mammal’s uterus in order to grow mouse embryos outside the body for long enough to observe the embryo developing in the vital first eight days of life.

Research leader and professor of tissue engineering Kevin Shakesheff said studying the way the body generates new cells at an early stage could lead to treatments for otherwise untreatable conditions.

‘There are a lot of diseases that involve adult patients losing the functions of certain tissues, for example, after a heart attack and, as adults, we can’t repair that spontaneously,’ he told The Engineer.

‘But everybody did grow those tissues themselves when they were an embryo in a matter of a few weeks. We want to know what’s happening in the embryo better and see if we can use that as a way of growing adult tissue from adult stem cells.’

Until now, fertilised eggs cultured in the lab have only survived for four days and knowledge of what happens in the womb after that relies on snapshots taken from embryos removed from the body at different stages of development.

Instead of growing embryos on a rigid plastic Petri dish, Shakesheff’s team created an environment from a more elastic polymer covered with a layer of collagen that biologically and chemically interacts with embryos as a real womb’s walls would.

‘We use a layering technique where we put a charged polymer down first and then collagen, which is a natural protein found in the body, lies on top of that. Those are simple solutions that stick [to a substrate],’ said Shakesheff.

The artificial womb also had to be made transparent to allow scientists to study the embryos in detail from all angles.

Using the artificial womb, researchers at Cambridge University have been able to study the process that is the first step in the formation of the embryo’s head.

Shakesheff now wants to use nanotechnology and polymer technology to simulate the next step of growth for embryos where waves of growth-factor proteins stimulate their development.

The Nottingham research has been published in the journal Nature Communications.