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Q&A: Stem cell biologist predicts human embryo models could pave the way to organ transplants

Published in Bioprinting.

Alot happens in the first month of human embryo development as a single cell morphs into multitudes. Yet despite its significance, this period is basically a “black box” to researchers, says stem cell biologist Jacob Hanna.

He and his team at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel have taken steps toward probing that puzzle. Last year, they announced they had grown a synthetic human embryo, equivalent to a 14-day-old human embryo, in the lab without the aid of a human sperm or egg cell.

The discovery may serve as a model for better understanding the earliest days of human development, potentially helping scientists to grow organs and tissues for transplant down the line. Hanna, who was named to the 2024 STATUS List as one of 50 people shaping the future of health and life sciences, sat down with STAT to discuss his career path, the promise of his research, and navigating the ethics of stem cell research on embryo development.

Tell me about yourself, Jacob, and what has inspired you to get to where you are now?

When I was a medical trainee, as a Palestinian minority and being gay here, I always wanted to immigrate to the U.S. I thought, if I emigrate, how am I going to compete with the U.S. medical residents? I should have a Ph.D.! That’s how I got into science.

I did my Ph.D. in immunology. I happened to interview in a stem cell lab just for the fun of it. It’s serendipity, which is the fun part of science. Five years ago, I would have never predicted exactly what I’m doing today.

What is it you do now as a scientist?

I work on embryonic stem cells that are at the earliest phases of development. We have been studying, “What are they? What are their characteristics? What is their metabolism?” [They’re] very fascinating creatures. It turns out they are the first building blocks of an embryo. They can make an entire embryo on their own. Basically, we unveiled that encoded within them is a self-propagating reaction or domino effect. They start making not only the embryo parts, but also the extra embryonic tissues like the placenta and the yolk sac, which are also very critical not only for feeding the embryo, but also for giving it shape.