Press release

Wellcome-funded initiative to unlock secrets of human development

A world-first research project will unravel how human embryos develop in the first weeks and months after fertilisation, improving our understanding of fertility, birth defects and regenerative medicine. 

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.  

Around 3% of babies are born with developmental defects – problems that often start very early in pregnancy such as heart defects, spina bifida and cleft palate. But we know very little about why and how they happen. 

The Initiative 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.

To address this, 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.

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.  

Professor Rick Livesey, based at UCL 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. In addition, the insights from this work could help regenerative medicine reach its full potential.”   

The project will involve donated human embryos and human foetal tissue. The UK has a strong regulatory and legal framework and the HDBI will work within and respect these regulations. The Initiative will actively work to consider the ethical issues raised by this growing area of research and includes a specific ethics programme and public engagement programme. 

Andrew Chisholm, head of cellular and developmental science at Wellcome, said: “This new initiative brings together a diverse group of biologists from across the country to share their expertise and work together to build a ‘family tree’ of how different cells and tissues come together to form organs. This will create a treasure trove of data and technologies that will be made available to the community.

“Thanks to new techniques and technologies to study human development the HDBI will provide insights that could help our understanding of developmental disorders." 

The Human Development Biology Initiative is a five-year programme which involves 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.  In addition, it will partner closely with the MRC-Wellcome Human Developmental Biology Resource.