Uncovering how human embryos develop in major new research project

A new research project aiming to understand the earliest stages of human development is set to launch, led by scientists at the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute for Child Health (ICH).

By uncovering how embryos usually develop the researchers hope to better understand why this process can go wrong in the case of birth defects like spina bifida and cleft palate.

The project, which has received £10 million funding from the Wellcome's Human Developmental Biology Initiative (HDBI), will bring together researchers from across the UK to map out how cells divide and specialise into different roles following fertilisation.

This developmental map will provide the basis for understanding how diseases can develop early in development. Over 3% of children born with a birth defect each year. The problems often start very early in pregnancy but very little is known about why and how they develop.

The project will also look at the development of the brain and spinal cord, the blood and immune system, and the heart and lungs in embryos up to 20 weeks after fertilisation.

Professor Rick Livesey, who is GOSH Children’s Charity Professor of Stem Cell Biology at ICH and Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), 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.”

Professor Livesey, who will lead this project from the new Zayed Centre for Research into Rare Disease in Children, also added, “The insights from this work could help regenerative medicine reach its full potential.”

For many years, scientists have relied on studies in animals and cells to understand the process of development as very few researchers have access to human embryo tissue samples. Understanding of early human development is therefore extremely limited. The new project will bring together the research community, along with recent advances in embryo and organ models, sophisticated live imaging techniques and genome editing allowing researchers to gain an unprecedented insight into human development.

The project will involve donated human embryos and human foetal tissue and will be subject to the UK’s strong regulatory and legal framework. It will build on the success of the Human Developmental Biology Resource (HDBR), a well-established system for collecting and distributing human foetal tissues, which is based at ICH and Newcastle University Institute of Genetic Medicine. Professor Andrew Copp, Glaxo-Wellcome Professor of Developmental Neurobiology at ICH will lead the integration with the HDBR.