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MERLN Pioneers New Approach for Studying Monozygotic Twin Formation

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21 April 2024

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MERLN Pioneers New Approach for Studying Monozygotic Twin Formation

Researchers at Maastricht UMC+ and the MERLN Institute have developed the first embryo structure capable of mimicking the formation of human identical twins, utilizing only stem cells without the need for gametes. This breakthrough allows unprecedented insight into the formation of identical twins, where the rapid expansion of the blastocyst—a sac comprised of placental cells that houses the stem cells from which life originates—causes the embryo to split into two. Published in the prestigious journal Advanced Materials, this research leverages a sophisticated technological platform that has been revealing intricate biological processes over the years, facilitating the controlled growth of cells, tissues, organs, and embryos. The focus of this current study is on understanding the crucial early stages of healthy embryo implantation and development, offering a new avenue to explore foundational micro-processes that have traditionally been obscured within the womb. This research aims to enhance biomedical care, making it more accessible and affordable globally.

Applications in Medicine

The creation of synthetic embryos from stem cells has reached a fidelity that provides essential insights into natural embryonic development. This research has practical implications, particularly in enhancing our understanding of miscarriages and infertility. It offers potential solutions to fertility issues and improvements in contraception methods. Historically, three-quarters of identical twins have shared a single placenta, a phenomenon that until now was poorly understood. This new discovery could illuminate the underlying mechanisms of this occurrence. Moreover, twin pregnancies often involve complications that manifest during the early stages of implantation, which can now be studied more effectively, potentially leading to preventive measures or treatments.

Innovative Research Platforms: High Throughput and Implantation-on-Chip

In the lab, these early-stage synthetic embryos are cultivated for up to 14 days and subjected to thousands of parallel high-throughput experiments. Each experiment uses unique combinations of growth factors and signaling molecules to determine the optimal conditions for embryonic growth during the first week, including precise timing. For the second week of growth, researchers have developed an "implantation-on-chip" platform, which enables the cultivation and examination of small samples of uterine tissue on a microfluidic chip to optimize conditions for embryo implantation in the uterus. Lead researcher Erik Vrij noted that this platform could predict the success of treatments following procedures like IVF and PGT.

Enhancing Medical Care Through Advanced Technologies

The integration of robotics and machine learning is refining the simulation of biological processes, with the high-throughput approach increasing the likelihood of successfully creating a twin embryo model. According to MERLN's founder, Professor Clemens van Blitterswijk, the identified formulas from this research could lead to the development of tissue-specific stem cells, tissues, and organ parts for patient treatment. The goal is to enable these advancements on a scale that could significantly help a large number of people while keeping costs manageable.

This research forms part of the PhD thesis of Dorian Luijkx under the supervision of Erik Vrij, Stefan Giselbrecht, Clemens van Blitterswijk, with collaboration from Asli Ak and Ge Guo of the University of Exeter.


MERLN Develops the First Model for Monozygotic Twinning


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Date Added: 21 April 2024   Date Updated: 21 April 2024
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