Human Developmental Biology Resource (HDBR): an embryonic and fetal tissue bank for functional genetics and cell-based research

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Institute of Genetic Medicine


Birth defects occur in 3% of pregnancies and are responsible for 20% of infant deaths. They include conditions like spina bifida, hole-in-the-heart, and cleft lip and palate which pose often life-long medical problems for the child, caring challenges for the family, and a considerable financial burden for the health service. While pregnancy termination can be an option, the ultimate goal is to learn how birth defects develop in the embryo and fetus, so that preventive measures can be offered. These might involve vital nutrients like folic acid, or stem cell transplants which hold great promise for future disease treatment.

In addition, many rare diseases of both children and adults first arise owing to a problem during development of the fetus before birth. Researchers are increasingly finding faulty genes to be associated with such diseases, raising the possibility that genetic counselling and perhaps gene therapy might be offered in future. However, we need to understand how such genes function in the embryo and fetus, in order to move forward towards new methods of diagnosis and treatment. While research in animals can help in providing information on the origin of such diseases, there is ultimately no alternative to studying the processes in humans themselves.

The Human Developmental Biology Resource (HDBR) enables this vital research by providing scientists with access to material from human embryos and fetuses. The HDBR has ethical and Human Tissue Authority approval to collect, store and distribute human fetal material for research. The material is obtained, with informed consent after the woman has received professional counselling and decided to terminate the pregnancy. The samples are examined for stage of development and their chromosomes are tested to determine if they are normal. The tissues are then either sent to researchers for immediate preparation of cell cultures or biological molecules, or else the samples are frozen or otherwise preserved for later distribution to researchers. Sample details are recorded on a secure database that is anonymized, so no link to the donating women exists in the data. HDBR staff also carry out research work on the human material, on behalf of scientists, where this is required.

To date, over 400 different research projects have received material from the HDBR, and this has led to over 200 scientific papers being published. Discoveries have included genes that interact to cause Hirschsprung's disease (absent nerves in the bowel), an improved understanding of genes contributing to schizophrenia and the identification of genes for severe eye defects. In this way, scientists are using HDBR material to learn how genes contribute to human development and how mutations (mistakes) in these genes may lead to birth defects or rare diseases.

In the present proposal, the HDBR seeks further funding to pursue and extend its service to the international scientific community. New developments will include: (i) a focus on extending the collection to later fetal stages, as required for studies of human brain development; (ii) a new systematic collection of fetal material from pregnancies being terminated because of prenatally diagnosed birth defects, thereby allowing research into these diseases; (iii) expanding the tissue preparations that HDBR provides to researchers, to include material suitable for studies of the genetics of single cells, which is now becoming technically possible; (iv) the provision of 'hotel' facilities in our laboratories to enable researchers to be trained in best use of HDBR material; (v) a new linkage of data from genetics studies with our existing gene expression database (Human Developmental Studies Network; HuDSeN) which will for the first time allow scientists to observe how individual genes are expressed in the human embryo/fetus in relation to all the active genes and proteins that are present in that tissue or at that stage of development.

Technical Summary

The Human Developmental Biology Resource (HDBR; is a human fetal tissue bank that provides the scientific community with: (i) High-quality materials from embryonic and early fetal stages (4-22 post-conception weeks; PCW), including tissues for cell culture, sub-organ-specific dissected regions for 'omics analysis, and slides for spatial gene expression studies; (ii) An In-House Gene Expression Service that undertakes studies for registered researchers; (iii) A unique web-based database (HuDSeN) for dissemination of human gene expression data spatially mapped to 3D models.

Since 1999, the Inst. Genetic Medicine, Newcastle and the Inst. Child Health, UCL have worked in partnership, developing the HDBR to support national and international research into human development. The 4-22 PCW period covers organogenesis when congenital disorders and many childhood/adult disorders originate. Research (e.g. 100,000 Genomes) is identifying ever-increasing numbers of disease-related genes and, while animal models can provide valuable mechanistic information, there is a growing need to access human fetal tissues for genetic and epigenetic research. Development of 'omics technologies, including at the single-cell level, and increasing use of stem and progenitor cell lines in tissue engineering, are further drivers for extending the HDBR tissue bank service.

To meet these growing demands, the HDBR proposes to augment the value of its tissue supply particularly in the older fetal age range, as increasingly required for brain development studies. Systematic collection will begin of tissues from fetuses with prenatally diagnosed congenital anomalies to support research in these diseases. New dissection/tissue preparation methods will cater for single cell 'omics projects, while 'hotel' facilities will be offered to teams wishing to train in use of HDBR material. 'Omics data locations will be linked to HuDSeN to enhance usefulness of the gene expression database.

Planned Impact

The HDBR will have impact in the following ways:

Researchers in Academia: will benefit from HDBR's provision of hard-to-access human embryonic and fetal material, in-house gene expression service and support for interpretation of gene expression patterns and developmental anatomy. These enable researchers to answer questions on in vivo human development that would be impossible without access to these tissues. Researchers also benefit from HDBR's HuDSeN database, as a route to make their data publicly available and more widely accessible. The new "hotel facilities" and upgrades to the HDBR website will enable researchers to learn specialized techniques and dissections and gain knowledge of "tried-and-tested" reagents known to work well with HDBR material.

Translational and Clinical Researchers: will benefit from the range of services outlined above. Investigation of stem-cell based therapies for congenital or other disorders with a developmental origin rely on data from normal human development as the "gold standard" for assessing the accuracy of the cellular reagents being developed to replace/repair affected cells/tissues. Furthermore, there can be differences in tissue and organ development and/or prenatal function between human and animal models such as mouse. It is critical for research leading to other types of therapeutic agent (e.g. drugs) that the precise mechanisms used in human are characterized. Even subtle differences may reduce the efficacy or increase the harm of a potential treatment. There will be long-term benefit to patients through development of therapies based on this knowledge.

Students and Lecturers: under- and post-graduate students doing projects in the HDBR laboratories will benefit from research training and specialized knowledge about human development. Undergraduate students who are generating learning materials will gain both knowledge of the anatomy and developmental processes for the specific organ they work on, as well as methods for evaluating self-directed learning. More generally, medical and biomedical students will benefit from access to the learning materials available via the HuDSeN website. There has been a progressive decline in embryology teaching on medical courses in recent decades, and the HDBR's provision of visually instructive images and models of human development help to provide much-needed student resource. Lecturers and other teachers will benefit from access to the learning materials for use in their courses. By the end of the grant, it is expected that 3D- print-ready instructions and/or 3D printed models of individual organs will be available for use in teaching.

HDBR staff will themselves benefit from the research knowledge and skills of the HDBR registered users who take up the new "hotel facilities". They will also benefit from the public engagement activities they take part in as these require them to learn new skills and give them the opportunity to listen and respond to questions and discussion points from members of the public (adults and children). Career prospects for HDBR staff are greatly enhanced by authorship on publications arising from use of HDBR material, and we encourage such authorship where an HDBR staff member has made a significant contribution.

Members of the public: will benefit from the public engagement activities led by HDBR staff as well as the new exhibit developed for Life Science Centre. These will provide an opportunity to further their understanding and interest in human development and to discuss any concerns. A recent success for the HDBR was the provision of images to the Hong Kong Science Museum for its new "Distant relatives" exhibit in the Biodiversity Gallery ( The exhibition is part of the museum's response to the "United Nations Decade on Biodiversity", 2011-20, to raise public awareness about the importance of biodiversity conservation.


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Description Human Developmental Biology Resource: support for Human Cell Atlas
Amount £743,000 (GBP)
Funding ID MR/S036334/1 
Organisation Medical Research Council (MRC) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2018 
End 03/2021
Title human embryos and embryonic tissues 
Description human embryos between Carnegie stage 8 and 20 post conceptional weeks supplied in a variety of forms including whole embryos, dissected organs/tissues, isolated cells, tissue on sections and nucleic acids (RNA/DNA) In the past 12 months we have registered 70 new projects with the HDBR. Newcastle have sent 2219 tissue samples (4515 across both sites) from material collected in that period, and 524 tissues (761 across both sites) from 'archived' material. In addition, we have sent 1587 microscope slides (1992 across both sites). 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact this is used widely by the research community for a number or purposes - see publications for outputs 
Title HuDSeN 
Description The Human Developmental Studies Network (HuDSeN) aims to provide a forum for researchers in human developmental biology and related fields to meet and establish links. 90 new entries have been made to the HuDSeN human gene expression spatial database in the past year. These correspond to 24 genes (4 of which - DONSON, GFAP, NR2F2 and ZNF804 are novel) across 17 stages of development from CS12 to 17pcw. 3 sets of high resolution H&E images have been added to the HuDSeN atlas of the developing human. In addition, a new eHistology viewer has been added to the Atlas site which now contains CS16, CS17, CS18 and CS19 datasets 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2009 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact There have been 5572 page views on the database site There have been 2371 visits to the Atlas site 
Description HDBR UCL 
Organisation University College London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution HDBR is jointly held between Newcastle and Institute of Child Health, UCL
Collaborator Contribution Newcastle and UCL make an equal contribution to the functions of the HDBR
Impact all outputs are joint with UCL
Description Genetics Matters 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We demonstrated models of human embryos (on-screen and 3D printed) and websites to members of the public as part of the Newcastle Genetics Matters Day in February. There were approximately 70 people attending and the images and models seemed to be well received and provoked a lot of questions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019