Pioneering research that could lead to a breakthrough in understanding the causes of cleft palate in newborn babies has begun in Manchester, UK.

Dr Jill Dixon, in The University of Manchester's School of Dentistry, has been awarded a three-year New Investigator Award by the Medical Research Council to look into the distressing birth defect.

Dr Dixon's work will investigate the role of a DNA-binding protein - p63 - during the development of the palate in unborn babies.

"During a baby's development the palate forms from two distinct halves that fuse together to form a complete structure separating the oral and nasal cavities," explained Dr Dixon, who has worked in craniofacial research for the last 14 years.

"The underlying developmental mechanisms are poorly understood but recent genetic studies have provided important insights into this complex process."

Helen Moore, a PhD student working with Dr Dixon, has already shown that a reduction in the level of p63 precedes palatal fusion.

Dr Dixon's research aims to reveal how the p63 protein works during normal palatal development and how it is disrupted in cleft palate.

"Patients who are affected by cleft palate may experience significant difficulties with eating and speaking," said Dr Dixon.

"The condition can be corrected to some degree by long-term surgery, dental treatment and speech therapy but the more that we understand about the way the palate develops normally, the more we can begin to analyse how and why congenital malformations such as cleft palate occur."

Dr Dixon, who was recently appointed to a Lectureship in Basic Dental Sciences, has been awarded more than £200,000 to carry out her studies.

She was one of just 21 successful applicants to be funded by the scheme, which provides support for clinical and non-clinical researchers in their first steps towards establishing themselves as independent principal investigators.

In the first part of the project, Dr Dixon will analyse whether cleft palate results if p63 levels are maintained.

In addition, she will introduce a mutation in p63 that has been shown to underlie cleft palate using gene-targeting technology.

This strategy will allow her to investigate the downstream effects of this mutation on other proteins involved in palatal development.

In the short term, the results of this research will help to dissect the role of p63 in normal and abnormal development of the palate.

In the longer term, this information may help in the design of therapies to improve the way in which clinicians manage patients affected by cleft palate.

Contact: Aeron Haworth
University of Manchester