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Published: 20 March 2012  
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Pure sciences  |  Health & life sciences  |  Research policy


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Embryo development in the spotlight

Researchers in the United Kingdom have identified a vital process in the development of the early mammalian embryo. They have developed a tool able to mimic the soft tissue of the mammalian uterus in which the embryo implants. The results could help lead to the development of novel treatments for various diseases. Presented in the journal Nature Communications, the research was funded in part by the MASC ('Materials that impose architecture within stem cell populations') project, which has received a European Research Council (ERC) grant worth almost EUR 2.3 million under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

Embryo development © Shutterstock
Embryo development
©  Shutterstock

Led by Professor Kevin Shakesheff, from the Drug Delivery and Tissue Engineering division at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, this groundbreaking study makes it possible to see never-before-seen aspects of embryonic development. The team observed in real time the processes of growth during a vital stage between the fourth and eighth days of development.

'Using our unique materials and techniques we have been able to give our research colleagues a previously unseen view of the incredible behaviour of cells at this vital stage of an embryo's development,' says Professor Shakesheff. 'We hope this work will unlock further secrets which could improve medical treatments that require tissues to regenerate and also open up more opportunities to improve in vitro fertilisation (IVF) techniques. In the future we hope to develop more technologies which will allow developmental biologists to understand how our tissue forms.'

In the past researchers cultured a fertilised egg for four days, as it grew from a single cell into a blastocyst. But what happened after this stage was never clarified... until now. In this study, the team monitored and recorded new aspects of an embryo's development after four days. They observed the first step in the formation of the head, involving pioneer cells moving at a large distance within the embryo. They identified clusters of extra-embryonic cells that signal where the head of the embryo should form.

The researchers determined how the cells emerged from one or two cells at the blastocyst stage before migrating to the position at which they signal development of the head.

'Everyone reading this article grew themselves from a single cell,' Professor Shakesheff says. 'Within weeks of the embryo forming all of the major tissues and organs are formed and starting to function. If we could harness this remarkable ability of the human body to self-form then we could design new medical treatments that could cure diseases that are currently untreatable. For example, diseases and defects of the heart could be reversed if we could recreate the process by which cardiac muscle forms and gets wired into the blood and nervous system.'

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University of Nottingham
Nature Communications
European Research Council

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