One of the most common congenital birth defects in humans, a cleft palate, till date has only complex surgical treatments. But now there may be a way to cure it in the womb itself.
According to Yang Chai, the study's principal investigator, close regulation of important signalling molecules during palate formation may help reverse the onset of cleft palate.
Chai said protein Shh must remain within a certain level in a developing fetus in order for a proper palate to form. If too little or too much of the protein is expressed, a cleft palate can occur.
Two genes are responsible for the regulation of Shh levels. Signalling from the Msx1 gene encourages Shh production, while Dlx5 discourages Shh, creating a healthy balance.
Both genes are critical for the healthy development of the palate, teeth and other skull and facial structures.
During the study, fetal mice were strategically bred to have a defect in the Msx1 gene resulting in lack of expression of the Shh protein and the formation of cleft palates.
However, when the impact of the Dlx5 gene was suppressed, more Shh was successfully expressed and the palate began to regrow.
When the mice were born, their palates were intact. While some of the oral structures had minor differences as compared to the palates in completely healthy mice, the function of the rescued palates were healthy, allowing the newborn mice to feed normally.
Researchers hope that the new discovery may help better understand similar defects in humans.