Study of bats could shed light on human cleft palates and lips
Researchers may be closer than ever to understanding why children are born with cleft palates and lips - and to preventing them from occurring.
A group of Irish researchers have been studying a condition in horseshoe bats that is remarkably similar to cleft palates and lips in children.
It is the only condition similar to cleft palates in any species outside of humans, opening up a new opportunity for researchers to study where they come from.
The research is particularly important because doctors do not have any definite understanding of why clefts occur.
The research began when Dr David Orr, who specialises in cleft lips and palates and works at Crumlin Children's Hospital, started studying evolutionary biology.
He then began working with Professor Emma Teeling and Prof John Finarelli of UCD.
They decided to investigate the cleft-like condition in bats by examining almost 300 different species.
Studying the genetic differences between bats with and without clefts may allow researchers to understand better why clefts happen in children.
Dr Orr says they do not fully understand why cleft palates occur, but that this research may bring them closer than before.
"Whatever mechanism is altered in them, it must involve some of the same components that are altered in a child who produces a bilateral cleft palate," he said.
"It's quite possible that if we could find out what particular genetic alterations bring about these clefts in bats, that it will allow us to understand better how they form in humans and perhaps give us an intervention early on that might prevent a cleft from forming in a foetus.
"If we can find the difference between species of bats that have clefts and species that don't, that may give us an idea of where to look in humans.
"I wouldn't like to say that I can see a clear line from this research to a practical application, but by studying this in more detail, we'll understand the position much better," he added.