The development of the embryo and fetus occurs at a remarkable rate, progressing from a single fertilized oocyte, to a highly complex and functioning being capable of survival outside of the uterus by the time of birth. In humans this dramatic growth, maturation and attainment of organ function occurs during the 40 week period known as gestation but it occurs in only 19-21 days in mice! This extremely rapid rate of development requires highly co-ordinated and tightly regulated control of cell proliferation, cell lineage formation, cell migration, programmed cell death and cell maturation to ensure appropriate fetal organ and body growth and development. However, growth and development does not cease at birth, but continues beyond the newborn period.
In the vast majority of cases, fetal and neonatal development occurs with a remarkable degree of accuracy. However, this extremely rapid rate of development means that that the fetus and newborn are particularly vulnerable to even minor perturbations in the maternal, embryonic, fetal, or neonatal environment and these perturbations can have fatal, or dramatic and life-long consequences for the offspring.
Scientists in The Ritchie Centre are researching how the organs develop and function during fetal life, identifying factors that cause perturbations in organ development and identifying how those factors lead to perturbed development. It is critical to know how those processes occur so that we can develop new treatments to mimic or accelerate organ development in infants that are born preterm (before their organs have had sufficient time to develop), or when they are born with deficits in organ growth or function. Similarly, it is critical to understand how abnormal organ development occurs so that we can prevent, or reverse, abnormal development while promoting normal development. These studies have led, and will continue to lead to, groundbreaking advances in our understanding of fetal and neonatal development and underpin the development of new therapies and treatments for affected infants.
Specifically, scientists in The Ritchie Centre are investigating how the lungs, brain, cardiovascular system, nervous system, immune system, muscular system and gastrointestinal system develop and function before and after birth.