The neural tube, which is the structure that eventually develops into the brain and spinal cord, normally closes while a baby is still developing in the womb. Faulty neural tube closure causes conditions like spina bifida – a severe birth defect where there is a gap in the spine and the spinal cord is exposed. Spina bifida patients are often incapable of walking, and may require operations to drain fluid from the brain later in life.
Failures of neural tube closure continue to affect 1 in 1000 pregnancies in the UK. The eventual aim of the research is therefore to predict and ultimately prevent these serious conditions.
Dr Galea, who is currently a Wellcome Trust fellow at the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (ICH) will lead new research examining the mechanical forces involved in the formation of the body’s organs, including the brain and spinal cord, while the embryo is still developing in the womb.
The team will use cutting edge imaging methods and laser technology to manipulate individual cells in developing mouse embryos to gain a better understanding of the physical forces at play during normal neural tube closure, and how these go wrong in embryos which develop spina bifida.
Following on from previous research where Dr Galea’s team identified a new embryonic tissue structure specifically involved in closing the neural tube in the lower part of the spine, the new study will also explore whether spina bifida in the upper parts of the spine results from different neural tube closure defects.
The study will be carried out at the Newlife Birth Defects Centre at ICH, the research partner of Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in collaboration with GOSH/ICH researchers Professors Andy Copp and Nicholas Greene.