Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

A new study published this week in Nature, provides the most detailed analysis so far of the prenatal development of blood and immune cells in the bone marrow.

A longitudinal section of fetal femur with multiplex immunofluorescent staining, showing CD34 in red and VEGFR2 in green.
A longitudinal section of fetal femur with multiplex immunofluorescent staining, showing CD34 in red and VEGFR2 in green.

Throughout development our cells are in continual need of oxygen and nutrients and need to build the components of a sophisticated immune system ready to protect us from the moment of birth. The cells that do this are all provided by the blood and immune system. The emergence of these systems happens in multiple phases across several organs in a process known as haematopoiesis. Early in development, production of both red blood cells and immune cells begins in the yolk sac, before transitioning to the fetal liver, and then to the fetal bone marrow where it begins a life-long role.

In the study, which is part of the Human Cell Atlas (HCA) initiative to provide comprehensive reference maps of every cell type in the human body, researchers from a range of institutions including Professor Irene Roberts and Associate Professor Andi Roy both of the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit, the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine and the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Oxford, pinpoint a specific 6-7 week window in the second trimester, during which the full range of blood and immune cells are established in the bone marrow.

This data will be a valuable reference for researchers exploring the nature of the blood and immune system, especially where changes in those processes lead to diseases such as cancers. As part of the project researchers also studied Down syndrome bone marrow. Children with Down syndrome are known to be at increased risk of childhood leukaemias as well as immune deficiency and autoimmune diseases, making understanding development of the immune and blood systems incredibly important.

Professor Irene Roberts, a senior author of the paper said: “We know that children with Down syndrome have a higher risk of developing leukaemia but we don’t know why. This study characterises some of the differences in gene expression in their bone marrow, which will allow us to start figuring out whether these differences are significant and in what way. We hope this will ultimately help researchers develop better ways of treating, or even preventing, leukaemia in these children.”

“This project allowed us to study how haematopoiesis is established before birth in the bone marrow, the site for subsequent lifelong blood cell production. More importantly we show the utility of datasets such as this in understanding the effects on human health when these processes are perturbed”  said Professor Andi Roy a senior co-author of the paper.

This research was funded by Wellcome, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and funding to individual authors. Both Professor Irene Roberts and Professor Andi Roy’s work is funded by the NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre.

Read the full press release from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute here.

Read the full paper here

Similar stories

Study raises hope of pre-school type 1 diabetes screening programme

Researchers in Oxford have launched the first UK study in the general population to test for early markers of type 1 diabetes before children develop symptoms or need insulin.

Developmental dynamics of the neural crest–mesenchymal axis in creating the thymic microenvironment

A new paper from researchers at the Department of Paediatrics and the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences has shown that fibroblasts in the thymus, often considered simply as dull “structural” cells, are much more complex than previously thought.

Angelman syndrome: first patient to receive potential therapy in Oxford

Things that seemed impossible, only a few years ago, are happening today. The first patient in Europe and one of the first in the world was injected with a potential treatment, GTX-102, in a phase I/II clinical trial in Oxford.

New model for infant leukaemia announced

The breakthrough could lead to development of new treatments for infant Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia.

Why it's so hard to treat pain in infants

For decades physicians believed that premature babies didn’t experience pain. Here’s what doctors know now – and the innovative solutions being embraced by today's caregivers.

Oxford to work with Brazil to establish clinical research hub

The University of Oxford and Brazilian Ministry of Health have announced a joint initiative to set up a global health and clinical research unit in Brazil led by Professor Sue Ann Clemens CBE.