Israeli researchers say they have engineered model of ‘receptive’ human uterus

Tel Aviv University scientists hope embryos will implant and grow on their bioengineered uterine wall, say research sheds light on creation of early human life

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Illustrative image of an embryo (Zffoto; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image of an embryo (Zffoto; iStock by Getty Images)

A team of bioengineers and gynecologists at Tel Aviv University say that by bioengineering cells they have created a model of the human uterine wall where they hope embryos will be able to attach and grow. The discovery would be a step toward growing embryos in an artificially made biological womb model, the researchers said.

“We were able to develop a tissue-engineered model of the human uterine wall,” said Prof. David Elad. “The next step is to study how the embryos can implant into this wall.”

If implantation occurs as hoped, it would allow the embryos to develop in a biological environment rather than in the artificial environment of a petri dish and incubator, which are what is used today to incubate early embryos in the process of in vitro fertilization.

Developing in a biological environment is expected to yield “better results” for the embryos’ growth and survival, Elad explained in a phone interview.

Prof. David Elad at his lab at Tel Aviv University (Courtesy)

The human uterus is made up of three layers that together form the uterine wall: the inner endometrial layer, the smooth muscular layer, and the sheath, a fibrous and fatty tissue that surrounds the uterus.

Elad worked with Prof. Dan Grisaru, the director of the Gynecological Oncology Unit, and Prof. Ariel Jaffa, the former head of Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Lis Maternity & Woman’s Hospital at the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. Professors Elad and Jaffa have been collaborating in reproductive bioengineering research for more than 25 years, including with colleagues from the US and Europe.

In their work, they took endometrial and smooth muscle cells from the uterus and co-cultured them in layers in the lab, subjecting them as well to hormonal manipulation. Through their engineering of the cells, they managed to create a “model that represents a receptive uterus,” which would be able in theory to be fertile ground for a newly fertilized egg to implant and develop, said Elad.

Their research has been sent to medical and scientific journals for review, he said.

In 2017, Alan Flake, a fetal surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said that he developed eight fetal lambs in what looked like big Ziploc bags with tubes of blood and fluid, in a step toward creating an artificial womb to enable babies who are born too early to continue to grow in a more natural, uterus-like environment.

Elad said that he believes the Tel Aviv University study marks a “first time the anatomical architecture of the human uterus has been tissue engineered” and is an important step forward in gaining insight into the creation of early human life.

“You cannot do studies with the human uterus during pregnancy because of ethical and technical limitations, and animal studies are not representative,” he said. “Having a biological artificial uterus — a tissue-engineered biological model — will help us increase the knowledge on how early human life happens, and how to improve chances of women getting pregnant.”

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