Congenital heart defects could be traced right back to the first stages of embryonic development says University of East Anglia [UEA] research.
Findings published in the journal PLOS ONE have established that the beginnings of critical components of the heart can be traced to very early stages of embryo development. The research has been funded by the British Heart Foundation.
Biologists studied chicken eggs at the gastrulation stage—between 12 and 14 hours after fertilisation.
They noticed that some cells would go on to create the anterior and secondary heart fields after the initial formation of a primitive linear heart tube.
This process of understanding the correlation between the embryonic origin of cells and later stages of development is also known as 'fate mapping'.
These early cells are very important to the growing heart as they allow the heart to develop and generate other important structures like the outflow tract.
This study is the first to 'fate map' the origin of the cells that contribute to the development of the outflow tract in early stage embryos.
Many cardiac problems present in newly-born babies are related to the outflow tract and understanding the underlying causes of the development of the outflow tract may be helpful to affected families.
Prof Andrea Münsterberg, from the school of Biological Sciences at UEA, said: "We were researching chick embryos, but the process of development in humans is very similar. However while the gastrulation stage takes place within just a few hours in chicks, it takes a little longer in humans and happens in the third week of pregnancy.
"It is likely that what we learn in chick embryos can be applied to human development. The next step in our research will be to identify the factors, which guide these early cardiac progenitor cells to the right place at the correct time."
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