University of Waterloo-led team develops new technique to study birth defects

Tuesday, November 30, 2010
WATERLOO, Ont. (Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010) - A University of Waterloo-led engineering research team has discovered a breakthrough technique that allows experts to see how humans cells and tissues evolve and grow in the embryo.

Video force microscopy (VFM), as the technique is known, will allow medical researchers to visualize and quantify the forces that are at work in cells and tissues, including those that ultimately form eyes, ears, nose, limbs and other features crucial to embryos and newborns. These forces are produced by the movements of microscopic-sized tissues early in development.

"These movements involve what can be thought of as a tug-of-war between various cells and tissues," said Wayne Brodland, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who led the international research team. "In a tug-of-war analogy, VFM technique allows us to 'see' how hard each member of each team is pulling at any given moment."

The new method is described in a research paper, entitled Mapping the Dynamic Forces Driving Ventral Furrow Formation in Drosophila Using a Novel Technique: Video Force Microscopy (VFM), published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Brodland said that during early embryo development, sheets of tissue move in precise ways in order to form organs and other critical structures. "Although much is known about the genes expressed in many of these tissues, the mechanical forces that drive motions has remained largely a mystery."

The new VFM technique is key to medical research because it is widely held that aberrations in these driving forces are the reason that tissues sometimes do not move in a normal way and a malformation - in short, a birth defect - arises. Common examples of such irregularities in humans include spina bifida, cleft lip and palate and cardiac septum defects.

VFM makes it possible to determine these forces from time-lapse movies. When applied to multi-photon images of Drosophila embryos, obtained in the lab of Nobel laureate Eric Wiechaus, VFM reveals exactly how, when and where the mechanical forces at work in normal and defective embryos differ. Drosophila is a favoured model system for geneticists and developmental biologists studying embryogenesis.

As a result, VFM provides an important new tool for investigating the causes of birth defects.

"VFM allows us to learn the degree to which the driving forces are in error in cases where defects arise," Brodland said. "Our studies have shown that certain defects can be produced by irregularities in which the magnitudes of the driving forces are changed by as little as 20 per cent and for periods of time as short as a few hours. This knowledge is important for designing clinical strategies to prevent these defects."

Animations and movies of the VFM research results are available.

The work was funded by the Human Frontiers Research Program (HFSP), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Canada (NSERC) and international agencies.

About Waterloo Engineering

The faculty of engineering at the University of Waterloo is a multi-faceted engineering school with eight academic units, home to about 260 faculties, more than 1,840 graduate students and 6,340 undergraduate students. More than 33,000 alumni have made their mark in industry, academe and the public sector, in Canada and around the world. For further information, go to www.engineering.uwaterloo.ca.

About Waterloo

The University of Waterloo, located at the heart of Canada's Technology Triangle, is one of Canada's leading comprehensive universities. Waterloo is home to 30,000 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students who are dedicated to making the future better and brighter. Waterloo, known for the largest post- secondary co-operative education program in the world, supports enterprising partnerships in learning, research and discovery. For more information about Waterloo, visit www.uwaterloo.ca.

Contacts:

Wayne Brodland, professor of civil and environmental engineering, 519-888-4567 exts. 36211 or 3386; 519-498-8861 or brodland@uwaterloo.ca

John Morris, Waterloo media relations, 519-888-4435 or john.morris@uwaterloo.ca

Waterlooo news release no. 95


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