The only organ that human beings grow, discard, and then grow again — the placenta — is one of the most understudied organs in human biology. But Magee-Womens Research Institute is working to change that fact because the placenta plays a critical role in how a fetus grows normally — and how things can go wrong. According to Dr. Yoel Sadovsky, Executive Director of the institute, the placenta is the key regulator of both normal and abnormal fetal growth.
“By better understanding how this organ functions, we can better define the normal trajectory of health and development of the human fetus, and what can go wrong during pregnancy that would affect life beyond it,” he explains. These functions may also be different between male and female fetuses.
Researchers in Dr. Sadovsky’s lab have been discovering inherent mechanisms that are utilized by the placenta to protect itself, the fetus, and the mother from harmful circumstances.
“Small RNA molecules that are synthesized and released from the placenta can affect not only placental health by their ability to resist viral infections, but this resistance against viruses can also be transmitted to the fetus, and to the mother,” says Sadovsky.
The researchers also found other mechanisms by which the placental cells protect themselves against other injuries related to poor blood supply and its consequences.
“We think that communication between the placenta, the mother, and the fetus is mediated by very specific pathways that have not been known before,” Sadovsky adds.
The research is part of Sadovsky’s overarching objective to study pregnancy as a means of better understanding early human development, diseases of pregnancy, and how pregnancy impacts long-term health outcomes and wellness for the baby and the mother.
“Pregnancy both reflects and plays a key role in shaping a woman’s health and the health of her progeny,” he says.