The validated embryonic stem cell test to predict embryotoxicity in vitro

Nat Protoc. 2011 Jun 16;6(7):961-78. doi: 10.1038/nprot.2011.348.


In the embryonic stem cell test (EST), differentiation of mouse embryonic stem cells (mESCs) is used as a model to assess embryotoxicity in vitro. The test was successfully validated by the European Center for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM) and models fundamental mechanisms in embryotoxicity, such as cytotoxicity and differentiation. In addition, differences in sensitivity between differentiated (adult) and embryonic cells are also taken into consideration. To predict the embryotoxic potential of a test substance, three endpoints are assessed: the inhibition of differentiation into beating cardiomyocytes, the cytotoxic effects on stem cells and the cytotoxic effects on 3T3 fibroblasts. A special feature of the EST is that it is solely based on permanent cell lines so that primary embryonic cells and tissues from pregnant animals are not needed. In this protocol, we describe the ECVAM-validated method, in which the morphological assessment of contracting cardiomyocytes is used as an endpoint for differentiation, and the molecular-based FACS-EST method, in which highly predictive protein markers specific for developing heart tissue were selected. With these methods, the embryotoxic potency of a compound can be assessed in vitro within 10 or 7 d, respectively.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Validation Study

MeSH terms

  • 3T3 Cells
  • Animals
  • Biomarkers
  • Cell Differentiation / drug effects
  • Embryonic Stem Cells / cytology
  • Embryonic Stem Cells / drug effects*
  • Mice
  • Myocytes, Cardiac / cytology
  • Teratogens / toxicity*
  • Toxicity Tests / methods*


  • Biomarkers
  • Teratogens