Scientists’ use of hydrogel materials leads to stem cells developing like human embryos

Materials scientists at UNSW Sydney have shown that human pluripotent stem cells in a lab can initiate a process resembling the gastrulation phase — where cells begin differentiating into new cell types — much earlier than occurs in mother nature.

For an embryo developing in the womb, gastrulation occurs at day 14. But in a dish in a lab at UNSW’s Kensington campus, Scientia Associate Professor Kris Kilian oversaw an experiment where a gastrulation-like event was triggered within two days of culturing human stem cells in a unique biomaterial that, as it turned out, set the conditions to mimic this stage of embryo development.

“Gastrulation is the key step that leads to the human body plan,” says A/Prof. Kilian.

“It is the start of the process where a simple sheet of cells transforms to make up all the tissues of the body — nerves, cardiovascular and blood tissue and structural tissue like muscle and bone. But we haven’t really been able to study the process in humans because you can’t study this in the lab without taking developing embryonic tissue.”

“So it’s really exciting that we were able to see this happening in vitro.”

The achievement, which was reported today in the journal Advanced Science, has not only implications for our understanding of human embryonic development, but also new treatments in medicine including cell therapy, targeted drug development and CRISPR gene-editing technologies.

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