Researchers in West Virginia University's Department of Biology are using the study of frogs to find a cure for one of the most common birth defects in the world: cleft lip and palate.
The health problem still affects one in every 500-700 children at birth, according to Operation Smile, an organization dedicated to repairing childhood facial deformities.
Shuo Wei has recently been awarded a grant of $222,000 from the National Institute of Health to study the genetic makeup of frogs as part of a larger research project to determine which genes are responsible for the cleft lip or palate. By finding the source of the defect, Wei hopes to ultimately find new methods to prevent or treat the birth defect.
“Neural crest cells are stem cells that give rise to facial structures in vertebrates,” Wei explained. “So if you have any defects in the neural crest cell development, you may end up with some severe birth defects.”
Wei and his team have generated transgenic frogs that display fluorescence — or the emission of light — specifically in the neural crest. This way, researchers can trace the development of these cells in real time and determine their gene expression patterns.
Frogs are the perfect model because not only are they vertebrates who have neural crest cells similar to those found in humans, but their embryos develop outside the uterus.
“The problem with using mammals is that the embryos only develop in the uterus so there’s no way you can monitor them without doing ultrasounds,” Wei explained. “These are already difficult techniques to do, but embryos in a uterus are even more difficult to manipulate. We can manipulate and monitor the frog embryos by in vitro fertilization and they’re totally independent of the mothers.”
Wei joined the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences last year and is impressed with the research support he has received from WVU.
“The huge expansion that is going on is rare to see anywhere else. The university is upgrading to a very high research institution,” Wei said. “We have a lot of research support and that is very attractive to many scientists, especially young scientists.”
Wei is working with assistant professor of statistics Mark Culp, who will participate by analyzing the gene expression data. Two doctoral candidates in the Department of Biology, Xiang Li and Shashwati Bhattacharya, are also part of the research group.
For more information, contact Shuo Wei, at 304-293-2106 or Shuo.Wei@mail.wvu.edu.