Robots Cost an Arm and a Leg, But Can Grow Them Back For You

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Scientists are growing thousands of miniature organs using fertilized embryos left over from IVF procedures.

The new system was developed at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.

It’s a “new ‘secret weapon’ in our fight against disease,” says Benjamin Freedman, the assistant professor of medicine who led the research.

Freedman explained that, normally, biomedicine research grows cells in flat sheets. But, sheets of cells are too simple for use, and researchers have been working on ways to grows more three dimensional structures. These “organoids” are better for research, they’re very difficult to produce in the quantities needed for research.

So, the development of robot-assisted production is one of the most “exciting potential applications” of the technology. By producing thousands of mini organs on a large scale, researchers can work on the problem of organ regrowth before moving on to bigger versions.

“The value of this high-throughput platform is that we can now alter our procedure at any point, in many different ways, and quickly see which of these changes produces a better result.”

So far, this rapid approach using robots instead of human hands has contributed to the discovery of a way of expanding the blood vessel cells in the mini kidneys to make them more like the real deal.

As well, they’ve produced mutated kidneys like the ones involved with polycystic kidney disease. Through this method, they were able to identify one of the protein-related factors that was causing the cysts to spread.

How Does It Work?

The researchers started with microwells, which look like this:

These plates can contain hundreds of microwells. In this case, researchers used plates with up to 384 microwells each, and over the course of 21 days, used liquid-handling robots to create approximately ten miniature kidneys in each well.

The kidneys, shown magnified below, are “organoids.”

The organoids are built from stem cells.

According to the National Institutes of Health,

“Stem cells are distinguished from other cell types by two important characteristics. First, they are unspecialized cells capable of renewing themselves through cell division, sometimes after long periods of inactivity. Second, under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be induced to become tissue- or organ-specific cells with special functions.”

Stem cells can come from only a few sources in humans, including embryos and umbilical cords.

The use of stem cells taken from embryos is the cause of controversy, because they’re humans, albeit in a very early stage of development. Between 3 and 5 days after fertilization, embryonic humans comprise around 150 stem cells.

Abandoned Embryos Feeding Stem Cell Research

Generally, most stem cells from embryos are taken from fertilized eggs from in vitro fertilization clinics that were never implanted. Sometimes you’ll hear a heart-warming story of a woman who chooses one of these fertilized eggs to be implanted in her own uterus, and bring to term a child with someone else’s genetic material.

[READ MORE: Video of the tiny spark at moment of conception]

But mostly, these abandoned eggs are donated by the parents to be chopped up for science.

According to the International Fertility Law Group, there are between 600,000 to 4 million frozen embryos abandoned embryos in the United States currently in storage.

With legal and ethical issues, some clinics store embryos for decades after they’ve been abandoned by parents. There are no federal laws strictly addressing the abandoned fertilized eggs, and so clinics must work through patchy state laws before deciding what to do.

In a recent, strange case, a mother was able to become pregnant after the death of her husband thanks to IVF:

“It turns out that before his death she and Sam had IVF treatments and she had two of the embryos left. Kristen made the decision to move ahead with an implant and give the embryos a chance at life and give the family the opportunity to celebrate Sam with a special gift.”

In related news a few years before that, two white lesbians sued a sperm bank for “damages” after one of them was impregnated with sperm from a black man.

“The birth mother, Jennifer Cramblett, was five months pregnant in 2012 when she and her partner learned that the Midwest Sperm Bank near Chicago had selected the wrong donor.

Never forget that every good news story may be hiding a price.

Sources: NIH, Science Daily, Mayo Clinic, International Fertility Law Group

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