Wellcome will provide £10 million to fund a 'world-first' research project to better understand human embryonic development.
The Human Developmental Biology Initiative (HDBI) aims to bring together research communities from across the UK to better understand fertility, birth defect and regenerative medicine. The initiative will focus on creating a 'family tree' of cell division and specialisation following fertilisation to reveal how tissues and organs develop and determine what happens when this process goes wrong.
Around three percent of infants are born with developmental defects such as spina bifida, a malformation of the spinal cord, which start early in pregnancy. Yet these defects are poorly understood. In the past, developmental studies have relied mainly on cellular and animal models, and scientists say their understanding of early human development remains very limited.
'We know surprisingly very little about how humans develop' said UCL Professor Rick Livesey, one of the researchers leading the HDBI. '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.'
Major challenges in studying early human development include limited access to embryonic tissue samples and understanding the huge genetic and environmental diversity of these tissues. To overcome this, the initiative will bring more scientists together and encourage the use of advances in embryo and organoid models, sophisticated imaging techniques and genome editing.
Andrew Chisholm, head of cellular and developmental science at Wellcome, said: 'Thanks to new techniques and technologies to study human development the HDBI will provide insights that could help our understanding of developmental disorders.'
Since researchers will be using donated human embryos and foetal tissue, the project will include a specific ethics and public engagement programme. Wellcome have stated that: 'The UK has a strong regulatory and legal framework and the HDBI will work within and respect these regulations.' They further noted that all data, tools and methods generated will be available to the scientific community free of charge.
The HDBI is a five-year programme that will involve researchers from UCL, the Francis Crick Institute, the Babraham Institute, University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, the University of Dundee and the University of Newcastle. The initiative will also partner closely with the MCR-Wellcome Human Developmental Biology Resource.