The University of Southampton
Medicine

Dr Judith Eckert DVM/PhD

Associate Professor in Early Development

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Dr Judith Eckert is Associate Professor in Early Development within Medicine at the University of Southampton.

Dr Eckert was appointed to the Faculty of Medicine in 2001. After qualifying as a veterinarian in 1992 at the Veterinary School in Hanover, Germany, she finished her DVM/PhD in 1994 there and at the FAL Institute for Animal Breeding and Behaviour Mariensee, Neustadt, Germany. She qualified as specialist for animal reproductive medicine in 1998 and held postdoctoral positions in Germany and New Zealand before coming to Southampton in 1998. In 2001 she was appointed as Lecturer and 2008 as Senior Lecturer in Medicine.

Dr Eckert leads a group that investigates regulation of very early mammalian development before implantation and how these processes adapt to prevailing external cues such as for example maternal diet or in vitro culture. Thus her research is widely relevant to both clinical and basic scientists involved in obstetrics and gynaecology or reproductive technologies and long-term health outcomes. Her group is based at the Southampton General Hospital campus and forms part of a large consortium comprising of both clinical and basic scientists with an interest in development and disease. Potential students, post-doctoral scientists or clinician scientists who are interested in joining her group are encouraged to contact Dr Eckert.

She is also part of the Centre for Human Development, Stem Cells and Regeneration (http://www.stemcells.org.uk) and has strong links with the Molecular and Cell Biology group in the Institute for Life Sciences (https://www.southampton.ac.uk/research/researchdir/biolsci.html).

Qualifications

Veterinarian, Veterinary School, Hanover, Germany (1992)

DVM/PhD, Veterinary School, Hanover, Germany (1994)

Specialist for animal reproductive medicine, Lower Saxony, Germany (1998)

Appointments held

PhD Research student, Institute for animal breeding, Mariensee (FAL), Department of Biotechnology, Germany (1991-1994)

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Institute for animal breeding, Mariensee (FAL), Department of Biotechnology, Germany (1994-1998)

Postdoctoral Fellow, AgResearch, Dairy and Beef Division, Ruakura Research Centre, Hamilton, New Zealand (1996)

Senior Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Southampton, School of Biological Sciences, Division of Cell Sciences, Southampton (1998-2001)

Lecturer, University of Southampton, School of Medicine, DOHaD Division, Southampton (2001-2008)

Senior Lecturer, University of Southampton, School of Medicine, DOHaD Division, Southampton (2008-present)

Research

Responsibilities

Publications

Teaching

Contact

Research interests

Dr Eckert and surrounding groups are interested in how the very first steps in mammalian development are brought about and what regulates them. Subsequent to fertilisation, the embryo undergoes a series of cell divisions before it starts to differentiate into a blastocyst which will implant into the uterine wall. This blastocyst comprises of the inner cell mass (ICM) which gives rise to the embryo proper and is the source of embryonic stem cells, and the epithelial trophectoderm (TE) which will become the placental lineages. Before achieving this milestone in mammalian development, the embryo has to undergo dynamic and complex remodelling processes. Interplay between gene expression, epigenetic, signalling and metabolic mechanisms regulates cellular re-organisation permissive to developmental competence to the blastocyst. In the human, many embryos fail to follow this appropriate differentiation programme at different levels and may not develop normally. Using animal models, studies from Dr Eckert’s and surrounding groups have shown measurable changes in blastocysts at all basic organisational levels as a consequence of in vitro culture or maternal dietary challenges. These changes can lead to persistent alteration in fetal and postnatal development. Main current interests lie in identifying which specific developmental steps and mechanisms are most severely affected and to develop strategies how such alterations may be prevented. Specific project areas are listed below.

1. Mechanisms of blastocyst differentiation

Using mainly mouse models, Dr Eckert has identified signaling mechanisms required for appropriate differentiation of the first two cell lineages in life within the blastocyst, ICM and TE. Cell contact patterns and specific PKC isoforms are involved in setting up TE differentiation and its appropriate function in controlling nutrient supply to the developing embryo. She has found an association of inappropriate tight junction formation with amino acid turnover in human blastocysts which may contribute to compromised embryo developmental potential (Fig. 1). Her current work investigates the involvement of key transcription factors (eg Oct4, Cdx2, Sox2).

2. Developmental plasticity of the early embryo

Environmental factors such as in vitro culture methods or maternal diet and body status can influence blastocyst development. This can result in embryonic lethality or implantation failure. To better understand what makes a viable embryo is highly relevant for reproductive technologies used to overcome infertility. Alternatively, developmental plasticity enhances the chances of survival in adverse circumstances. Such adaptive mechanisms include cell lineage allocation, expression of genes and metabolic signaling alterations. Most recently, Dr Eckert’s group has worked on how specific maternal nutritional challenges provoke adaptations at the blastocyst stage at cellular (relative allocation to ICM and TE), metabolic (glucose/insulin sensitivity, amino acids/protein synthesis) and signaling (mTOR, AMPK, transcription factors) levels (Fig. 2)

3. Reproductive tract environment

Maternal-embryonic communication within the reproductive tract is critical for embryo development and implantation. In vivo during the preimplantation period embryo development depends on supply available from reproductive tract secretions. How the uterine environment and its composition are controlled is poorly understood, let alone how it relates to systemic body status and diet. Using mouse and human models Dr Eckert’s group is currently investigating how the reproductive tract and uterine fluid composition respond to maternal diet or body status. Her group has also developed an in vitro culture model to investigate the formation of uterine fluid in more detail at cellular and molecular levels (Fig 3).

Dr Eckert’s group uses a range of modern cell and molecular biology techniques (quantitative RT-PCR, confocal microscopy, time-lapse live imaging) highly sensitive and suitable to examine small amounts of starting material down to single cells. She collaborates locally with basic biologists as well as clinical scientists. Anyone interested in graduate studentships, or post-doctoral positions (non-clinical and clinical) in the group are encouraged to contact Dr Eckert directly.

: A) Human blastocyst with B) normal and C) compromised trophectoderm differentiation and tight junction formation.
Figure 1
A) Blastocyst cell lineage allocation (red=trophectoderm blue=inner cell mass) localisation of B)GLUT-3 (yellow) C) OCT4 (green) and CDX2 (red) and D) actin in peri-implementation blastocyst outgrowth
Figure 2
: A) Cultured human uterine epithelial cells positive (green) for B) cytokeratin 7, C) ZO-1 and D) GLUT-1
Figure 3

Academic unit(s)

Human Development and Health Academic Units

Affiliate academic unit(s)

Human development and physiology Research group

Research project(s)

Maternal mechanisms induced by diet regulating embryo developmental plasticity affecting life-long health

Discovering the maternal mechanisms induced by diet which act through embryo developmental plasticity to alter later health.

How do preimplantation embryos sense and respond to maternal nutrition affecting fetal development and adult health

Mechanisms by which maternal diet affects embryo development and health into adulthood.

Postgraduate student supervision

Co-supervision

1996 Ute Kreysing DVM/PhD
1997 Andreas Kuwer DVM/PhD
1998 Holger Heymann DVM/PhD
2005 Richard Porter PhD
2006 Adam Watkins PhD
2006 Liz Ursell PhD
2007 Rose Panton PhD
2009 Charlotte Williams PhD
2010 Annette Thiem DM

Current

Sarah Finn-Sell
Francesca Lock

Faculty of Medicine

Postgraduate student progress committee (member)

Faculty Research Programmes committee (member)

Nominal Licensee, HFEA Research license

National and International responsibilities

Editorial Board Member for Reproduction
Review commissioning group for Reproduction
Royal Society, International Exchanges Scheme panel

Articles

Book Chapters

Clinical fellow and PhD student supervisor

BM4. Facilitates graduate group s in years 1 and 2, which introduce different clinical topics.

MMedSc. Offers laboratory placements that investigate mechanisms in early embryo development.

BMedSc. Offers laboratory project placements that investigate mechanisms in early embryo development.

BSc Biomedical Science. Lectures on Early embryo developmental mechanisms, adaptations and consequences in later life.

Integrated PhD Stem Cell Pathway. Mini-project supervisor.

Dr Judith Eckert
Human Development and Health Faculty of Medicine Mailpoint 840 Level D Laboratories and Pathology Block Southampton General Hospital Tremona Road Southampton SO16 6YD Tel: +44 (0)23 8120 8492 Fax: +44 (0)23 8120 5255 Email: jje@soton.ac.uk

Room Number:SGH/LD62A/MP840

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