BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
In 1978, an English doctor snipped newborn Louise Brown’s umbilical cord, slapped the baby on the rear, and handed off the crying infant to a proud mother and father. It would have been just another delivery in the maternity ward, but Louise Brown stood out from the other babies in the maternity ward in one crucial way: she was the first human successfully fertilized, conceived, and brought to term through the use of in-vitro fertilization. The process sent ructions through the scientific and religious communities, for different reasons. Was it a natural extension of our innate biological processes, or a crime against God? Even today, these issues remain hotly debated.
In-vitro fertilization can take several different forms, but most commonly it involves doctors fertilizing an egg from outside of the body (collecting eggs is a rather difficult procedure, but collecting sperm is… easier), then implanting the fertile zygote into the body of a compatible female – often the mother-to-be, but some have also used surrogate mothers. From there, pregnancy proceeds as normal: the mother or surrogate carries the developing baby to term and delivers it, either by caesarean section or the old-fashioned way. Voila, a healthy, happy, test-tube baby.
Enter 2017, where scientists from the University of Cambridge announce a new breakthrough in the science of baby-making. Scientists have long since understood the gradual development from fertilized egg to bouncing baby, but now these researchers have, for the first time, successfully turned a fertilized egg into an embryo in a controlled, artificial environment – no wombs, ma.
Stem cells rank among the most important, and least-understood, parts of our body. Few in number, these super-powerful cells can differentiate into any other cell that the body might need. We keep reserves of stem cells in our bodies all throughout adulthood, but we possess far more of them during the earliest days of our life as we develop in the womb. As we grow arms, legs, fingers, toes, and more, stem cells morph into the templates for the different organs we’ll need. Now, for the first time, we’ve managed to encourage these cells to grow outside of the womb.
Cambridge scientists used mouse stem cells outside of the womb as part of their continuing investigations into the earliest stage of our lives. Nurturing them inside a suspension of nutrient rich gel, scientists coaxed them to form a self-developing embryo from nothing. While one might automatically assume that the scientists plan to use this new technology to nurture a Star Wars-esque clone army for peanuts, the scientists have stated that they don’t intend to use this breakthrough to grow mice – or humans, for that matter – outside the womb. Instead, they hope to use the technology to get a better look at what goes on during the earliest days of fertilization, opening up a new venue that we could previously only study through the grainy and sometimes difficult-to-understand world of ultrasound photography.