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The Gurdon Institute


The Wellcome-funded Human Developmental Biology Initiative is a five-year, £10 million research project involving 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. Three Gurdon Institute group leaders are part of this endeavour.

PGCs by Walfred TangGurdon Institute researchers take part in world-first project to unravel how human embryos develop

The £10 million Wellcome-funded Human Developmental Biology Initiative (HDBI) will build a ‘family tree’ of how cells divide and specialise following fertilisation, to understand how tissues and organs develop and reveal new insights into how this process can go wrong. 

The HDBI, launched in July 2019, will create ‘family histories’ of cells 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.

For many years, developmental studies have relied on cellular and animal models. While this has provided important information, it’s also become clear that our understanding of early human development remains extremely limited. For example, research from Azim Surani's group has shown that the genes regulating specification of primordial germ cells (image above right) are different between human and mouse, the most commonly used animal model for such studies.

Human developing lung Rawlins 300pxwSimilarly, Emma Rawlins’ group has made analogous findings when comparing the genes controlling epithelial progenitor cells in the developing human and mouse lungs (image below right, with developing epithelial cells in green, blood vessels in red).

To address such barriers, the HDBI will tackle some of the biggest challenges that are holding the field back. Very few labs have access to human embryo tissue samples meaning that key pieces of research that will underpin the field have yet to be carried out. And when available, this tissue is incredibly diverse, reflecting the genetic and environmental origins, making insights hard to define.

The project will involve donated human embryos and human fetal tissue sourced via the MRC-Wellcome Human Developmental Biology Resource, which allows researchers access to human material ranging from four to 22 weeks of development. It is organised from two sites: the Institute of Genetic Medicine, Newcastle, and the Institute of Child Health, London. The UK has a strong regulatory and legal framework for working with such tissues, and the HDBI will work within and respect these regulations. The HDBI will also run a parallel public engagement project, What makes us human?, which aims to foster two-way conversations about the research, and its ethical and legal framework, between the scientists involved and non-scientists. 

By bringing the research community together, along with recent advances in embryo and organoid models, more sophisticated imaging techniques and genome editing mean that researchers can now gain an unprecedented insight into human development.

At the Gurdon Institute, three group leaders are part of the initiative: Azim Surani is co-lead for the research strand 'Cell lineage in human epiblast specification and early differentiation’; Emma Rawlins is co-lead for 'Human lineage analysis in a 3D spatial context: cardio-pulmonary system development’ as well as for the public engagement project; while Ben Simons is a lead for one of the three cross-cutting technology platforms: ‘Computational biology and data analysis’.