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UI researchers aim to prevent birth defects

BY SHANE ERSLAND | NOVEMBER 30, 2009 7:20 AM

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Jeff Murray is searching for a way to prevent cleft palate.

But the UI Carver College of Medicine professor isn’t sure what causes the defect. In fact, researchers nationwide have yet to fully understand how the human face is formed — and how that process can go awry.

Murray, who specializes in cleft lip and palate, which affects the upper lip and roof of the mouth, and a team of UI researchers have joined a nationwide project to create the first-ever encyclopedic database on how children’s faces develop and what may cause defects in them.

The UI and the University of Pittsburgh will serve as hubs for FaceBase, a five-year initiative funded with a $9 million grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Murray said new technology in the health field led to the opportunity for a project such as FaceBase.
NIH officials thought that “because of technological advances that have taken place, a project such as this might be useful,” said Murray, a co-principal investigator for the project.

Other universities also garnered grants to study how the middle region of the face — which includes the nose, upper lip, and roof of the mouth — develops. Scientists are unsure how embryonic cells morph into bone, cartilage, and other tissue to form the facial structure detected by the first ultrasounds.

The causes of roughly 70 percent of birth defects are unknown, according to the March of Dimes.

Over the past couple months, Murray has been researching microarrays — glass slides that contain millions of fragments of DNA — to determine what role genes play in birth defects.

John Manak, a UI assistant professor of biology who is collaborating with Murray on the project, said Murray’s knowledge on the issue is a major reason the UI is involved in the project.

“We have Murray; he’s been at the forefront of cleft lip and palate research,” he said.

Nationwide, around 4,200 babies are affected by cleft lip and palate defects per year, according to the March of Dimes.

Murray’s team compares DNA extracted from an affected person to the DNA of someone who is not afflicted by combining them on a microarray. If the affected person is missing certain genes, that could cause the disease, Manak said.

“We look for these because we have the techniques and methodologies to do that research,” he said. “There aren’t a ton of people doing this work.”

Once Murray’s team identifies damaged genes and decides if they could cause cleft lip, another group of researchers — including Robert Cornell, a UI associate professor of anatomy and cell biology — investigates how those genes contribute to the abnormality.

“Part of understanding cleft palates is understanding how the genes that control the development of the face are regulated,” Cornell said.

Murray said the FaceBase team is also building a network of scientists’ unpublished research data on facial development.

“It will speed up research,” he said, noting that other scientists can view results after research is completed instead of waiting for a published article.


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