The mechanisms that regulate early cell fate decisions in human development remain poorly understood, despite their fundamental biological importance and wide-reaching clinical implications for understanding infertility, miscarriages, developmental disorders and therapeutic applications of stem cells. We seek to uncover when and how human embryonic epiblast cells are established and maintained, and to understand the molecular mechanisms that distinguish these pluripotent cells from extra-embryonic cells during embryogenesis. We developed and are further pioneering methods to investigate gene function during human embryogenesis using CRISPR-Cas9-mediated genome editing, TRIM-Away protein depletion, constitutively active and kinase dead variants of proteins and small molecule inhibitors and activators. These approaches enable us to directly test the function of genes involved in signalling, and key transcription factors downstream of these pathways, which we hypothesize are involved in the first and second cell fate decision in humans. Altogether, we seek to make significant advances in our understanding of the molecular programs that shape early human embryogenesis, which has the potential to provide fundamental insights and to drive clinical translation.
Kathy Niakan is Mary Marshall and Arthur Walton Professor of the Physiology of Reproduction and Director of the Centre for Trophoblast Research at the University of Cambridge from 2020. She is Chair of Cambridge Reproduction, an interdisciplinary strategic research initiative bringing together expertise from 42 different departments, faculties and associated institutions to offer fresh perspectives on reproduction and to engage with the public on sensitive areas of research. From 2021, Dr. Niakan has been an Honorary Group Leader at the Babraham Institute and Affiliate Member of the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. She is a Group Leader at the Francis Crick Institute, formerly the National Institute for Medical Research, since 2013. Prior to this she was a Centre for Trophoblast Research Next Generation Research Fellow in Cambridge.
Her experience as a refugee informs her approach and commitment to diversity and inclusion, which she aims to support and represent in any role. Her family fled Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and eventually emigrated to the USA. This experience allows her to bring insights into the language, cultural, social and economic barriers that other immigrants or underrepresented minorities may face.
Her laboratory obtained the first nationally regulated approval to genetically modify human embryos in research which attracted widespread policy interest. Kathy provided evidence and advice in genome editing to members of the UK Parliament House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, European Commission, WHO and an International Commission on the clinical use of germline genome editing, among numerous other international government agencies and policy teams. She is a member of the ISSCR Board of Directors and was a member of the Task Force Committee to update ISSCR Guidelines in 2021.
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