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Wellcome Trust Research Round-up: 10.11.14

10 Nov, 2014

Our fortnightly round-up of research news from the Wellcome Trust community…

Researchers re-construct the early stages of embryo development

Scientists supported by the Wellcome Trust have assembled mouse embryonic stem cells that behave like an embryo during the early stages of development. The way that cells divide and differentiate when an embryo develops is distinctive, and until now, has not possible to recreate by assembling stem cells in labs. The researchers, based at Cambridge University, suggest that the key factor is bringing together a critical number of cells, which in this case was 300. You can watch the process in action in this video:

At first cells in an embryo look identical and often form a ball. The group of cells then becomes asymmetrical as cells ‘specialise’ into different types, forming an axis which provides an initial structure for the embryo to develop along. In animal embryos, this stage is followed by a process known as gastrulation, where (using the initial axis as a reference) the head and the tail, and the front and the back are defined.

This research, published in the journal Development, reports a way to coax cells to create an axis and undergo movements and organisations that mimic the process of gastrulation. The researchers were also able to generate the early stages of a spinal cord, which they showed forms as part of the process of gastrulation.

Professor Alfonso Martinez-Arias from the Department of Genetics at the University of Cambridge, who led the research, says: “Axis formation and gastrulation are the two central processes that initiate the development of an organism and are inextricably associated with the embryo. We have managed to recreate this for the first time in the lab.”

Homelessness and health report

homeless signThe health consequences of homelessness are far reaching and in order to reduce the negative impact they have, we need to target groups at high risk of homelessness, according to a report led by Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow Professor Seena Fazel. The paper, the first of a two-part series published in The Lancet, reviews the extent of homelessness in the EU and USA, the impact it has on individual health and healthcare systems, as well as recommendations for improving the situation.

The paper reported that there are 400,000 homeless people in Europe and 600,000 in the USA on any given night. In addition homelessness was found to affect a wide range of health problems, far beyond drug and alcohol related problems, which are traditionally targeted when improving the health of homeless people. For example, the homeless are 20 times more likely to develop tuberculosis than in the average person and seven times more likely to develop mental health issues such as depression.

Homelessness also was reported to put a large financial strain on healthcare systems, as homeless people were found to be four times more likely to use acute health services such as accident and emergency than their non-homeless peers. The paper reports that the health problems caused by homelessness cost the NHS an estimated £85 million each year.

Whilst the report recommended developing national targets to improve the health of homeless people, it also called for healthcare professionals to lobby policymakers to reduce homelessness via more affordable housing and more employment opportunities for low-skilled workers.

When it comes to sickle cell genetics, East and West aren’t too different

B0000521 SEM sickled and other red blood cellsA collaboration between Tanzanian researchers and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute has combined local genomics research with large-scale genome-wide association studies to shed light on genetic variations leading to sickle cell anaemia in East African populations. Although sickle cell anaemia is most common in Africa, most genetic studies are of African-Caribbean and African-American populations in the UK and the US respectively.

In African-American populations, genetic variations exist that reduce the ability to produce foetal haemoglobin by up to 50%. This study investigated the genomes of 1,213 individuals in Tanzania to confirm whether or not the same variations are present in an East African population, and to identify possible new ones.

The research found genetic variations near the genes BCL11A and HBS1L-MYB in the Tanzanian population with sickle cell anaemia, which have also been found in African-American populations. However variations in HBB, which are associated with the disease in African-American populations, were not found to be significant in East African populations. There were also other genetic associations which weren’t confirmed when compared to UK populations, so will need to be investigated further using larger populations.

“By carrying out a large-scale genome-wide association study we have, for the first time, been able to identify powerfully the prevalence of genetic variants involved in sickle cell anaemia in the Tanzanian population and how that compares with other populations,” says Siana Nkya Mtatiro, co-first author of the paper from Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences. “We have also identified suggestive additional variants, which can now be studied further by the research community in the search for interventions for sickle cell anaemia in patients in Africa and worldwide.”

In other news…

Unravelling Eve, a Wellcome Trust Small Arts Award funded film won a Highly Commended award at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film festival, where it was screened on the 17th of October. A version of the story has also aired on BBC Radio 4.

Wellcome Trust supported researcher Professor David Molyneux was made Honorary International Fellow of the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Image Credits: 19th Jan: Shelter – Helen Taylor on Flickr – CC-BY-NC 2.0 and SEM sickled and other red blood cells –EM Unit, UCL Medical School, Royal Free Campus’, Wellcome Images.

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