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Researchers aim to unravel mystery of how human embryos develop

Scientists hope to improve their understanding of fertility, birth defects and regenerative medicine.

A research project aims to ‘unlock secrets of human development’ (David Davies/PA)
A research project aims to ‘unlock secrets of human development’ (David Davies/PA)

The mystery of how human embryos develop in the early stages after fertilisation will be potentially unravelled by a new research project.

Scientists hope to improve their understanding of fertility, birth defects and regenerative medicine.

Around 3% of babies are born with developmental defects such as heart defects, spina bifida and cleft palate.

The problems often start very early in pregnancy but very little is known about why and how they happen.

Andrew Copp, Professor of developmental neurobiology at the Institute of Child Health, University College London, cited work that had been done looking at a possible way to increase prevention that folic acid can achieve for spina bifida.

He added: “That is work that came from mouse research and we hope that in a similar way, an analogous way, that this HDBI initiative will develop new preventative treatments for example, for specific birth defects.”

By understanding what is ‘normal’ in development we will be able to see how things can go wrong, offering new avenues for research Professor Rick Livesey

The £10 million Wellcome-funded Human Developmental Biology Initiative (HDBI) will build a “family tree” of how cells divide and specialise following fertilisation.

It will look at them from four particular time-points in development or organ systems – the early human embryo, the brain and spinal cord, the blood and immune system, and the heart and lungs.

Researchers hope to understand how tissues and organs develop and reveal new insights into how this process can go wrong.

They will explore various time-points of development, up to 20 weeks after fertilisation, using a range of existing techniques.

For many years, developmental studies have relied on cellular and animal models, and scientists say their understanding of early human development remains extremely limited.

Very few labs have access to human embryo tissue samples meaning key pieces of research that will underpin the field have yet to be carried out.

Professor Rick Livesey, based at University College London, and one of the researchers leading the HDBI, said: “We know surprisingly very little about how humans develop.

“By understanding what is ‘normal’ in development we will be able to see how things can go wrong, offering new avenues for research. In addition, the insights from this work could help regenerative medicine reach its full potential.”

The project will involve donated human embryos and human foetal tissue, subject to a strong regulatory and legal framework .

PA

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