The work, led by Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz from the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, was the focus of parallel publications earlier this year in the journals Nature Cell Biology and Nature.
Professor Zernicka-Goetz and colleagues developed a new technique that allows embryos to develop in vitro, in the absence of maternal tissue, beyond the implantation stage (when the embryo would normally implant into the womb). This will allow researchers to analyse for the first time key stages of human embryo development up to 13 days after fertilisation. The technique could open up new avenues of research aimed at helping improve the chances of success of IVF.
“It’s a wonderful honour to have been given such public recognition for our work,” says Professor Zernicka-Goetz, whose work was funded by Wellcome. “It’s a natural human instinct to be curious about where we come from, but until now, technical hurdles have meant there’s been a huge gap in our understanding of how embryos develop. We hope that our technique will crack open this ‘black box’ and allow us to learn more about our development.”
Dr Marta Shahbazi, one of the co-first authors of the Nature Cell Biology paper, also from Cambridge, adds: “In the same year where scientists have found evidence of gravitational waves, it’s amazing that the public has chosen our work as the most important scientific breakthrough. While our study will help satisfy our scientific curiosity, it is likely to help us better understand what happens in miscarriage and why the success rates for IVF are so low.”
The work builds on research pioneered by Professor Sir Robert Edwards, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2010. Professor Edwards developed the technique known as in vitro fertilisation (IVF), demonstrating that it was possible to fertilise an egg and culture it in the laboratory for the first six days of development. His work led to the first ever ‘test tube baby’, Louise Brown.
The award has been welcomed by Dr Jim Smith, Director of Science at Wellcome: “I’m really pleased to see Magda’s fantastic work recognised by Science, and we send our warmest congratulations to her and her team. In almost doubling the time we can culture human embryos in the lab, she has created completely new opportunities for developmental biologists to understand how we develop. It’s a great achievement, and Wellcome is proud to have supported her ground-breaking work.”
Science – Breakthrough of the Year 2016