Scientists create the first embryo with human and non-human primate cells

16 April 2021

Image of the human-monkey embryo; human cells are labelled in red. (Image: Weizhi Ji / Kunming University of Science and Technology)

Monkey embryos containing human cells have been made in a laboratory, a study has confirmed. The study reveals how the scientists took specific human foetal cells called fibroblasts and reprogrammed them to become stem cells. These were then introduced into 132 embryos of long-tailed macaques, six days after fertilisation. The embryos were created in part to try to find new ways to produce organs for people who need transplants, said the international team of scientists who collaborated in the work.

Time reports:

In a ground-breaking experiment, researchers have successfully created the first human-monkey chimera. The work, published in the journal Cell, describes the first embryo containing both human and monkey cells that was cultured for 20 days. Led by Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, the study represents the culmination of decades of work in understanding early embryo development in non-human species, which Belmonte hopes will now apply to humans.

Belmonte, a professor in the gene expression laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and well-respected for his work in embryo development, is very clear about why he pursued the experiment, and where he hopes it will lead. Creating cross-species mutants to capitalize on specific physical features or characteristics, X-Men style, was most definitely not the goal. In interviews with TIME on the experiment as it progressed since 2019, he carefully laid out the biological mysteries he hoped to solve, and the gaps in knowledge about early development he wanted to fill.

NPR reports:

“I don’t see this type of research being ethically problematic,” said Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University and Harvard University. “It’s aimed at lofty humanitarian goals.”

Thousands of people die every year in the United States waiting for an organ transplant, Hyun noted. So, in recent years, some researchers in the U.S. and beyond have been injecting human stem cells into sheep and pig embryos to see if they might eventually grow human organs in such animals for transplantation.

“This work is an important step that provides very compelling evidence that someday when we understand fully what the process is we could make them develop into a heart or a kidney or lungs,” said Dr. Jeffrey Platt, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan, who is doing related experiments but was not involved in the new research.

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