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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. Mice and rats may come to mind when we think of lab experiments, but a new grant to West Virginia University’s Department of Biology is using frogs to make medical breakthroughs possible. While these frogs won’t make fairy tales come true, they may help find a cure for one of the most common birth defects in the world, cleft lip and palate. The international children’s charity Operation Smile, an organization dedicated to repairing childhood facial deformities, reports that the birth defect occurs in approximately one in 500-700 births.
Shuo Wei has recently been awarded a grant of $222,000 from the National Institute of Health to study the genetic make-up of frogs. This initial venture is part of a larger research project to determine which genes are responsible for the cleft lip or palate, in hopes of ultimately finding new methods to prevent or treat the birth defect.
Shuo Wei PhD, Cleft Palate Photo: Copyright © 2012, A.D.A.M., Inc.
“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 fluorescenceor the emission of lightspecifically in the neural crest. That 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. He 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 help by analyzing the gene expression data, as well as two doctoral candidates in the Department of Biology, Xiang Li and Shashwati Bhattacharya.
For more information, contact Shuo Wei, at 304-293-2106 or Shuo.Wei@mail.wvu.edu