Placental research puts the spotlight on the first weeks of human pregnancy

A University of Adelaide-led research project will provide important new knowledge in the early weeks of human development to help reduce infertility and pregnancy complications.

This collaborative project – funded by a $5 million grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council’s Synergy Grant Program – will study interactions between cells from the early placenta and the mother’s uterus.

It builds on the different but complementary knowledge and expertise of the principal investigators from the University of Adelaide, Flinders University, University of Western Australia (UWA), RMIT University and The University of Queensland (UQ) with collaborators from UZ Brussel, Monash University and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

Professor Jose Polo, director of the Adelaide Center for Epigenetics at the University of Adelaide, is the lead principal investigator (CI) on the project.

“We will focus on how the different placental cell types develop from embryo implantation to the first few weeks of development that take place before a woman realizes she is pregnant,” said Professor Polo, who is also group leader at the South Australian Cancer Immunogenomics Institute (SAiGENCI).

“We will also show how placental cells are kept healthy throughout pregnancy.

“We will go back to the earliest days of placental development and identify key developmental checkpoints that, if gone wrong, lead to common pregnancy complications. Together, our research program will benefit the 15 percent of reproductive-age couples facing infertility, and the 30 percent of the 300,000 pregnancies affected by a major placenta-associated pregnancy complication each year in Australia.”

“This project has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the causes of pregnancy complications.” Professor Benjamin Kile, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Adelaide

Professor Claire Roberts – a fellow CI on the project – heads the Pregnancy Health and Beyond Laboratory at Flinders University and has been leading research on large human pregnancy cohorts in Adelaide since 2005.

“We know that pregnancy complications originate in the early days and weeks of pregnancy, but we had to wait until the 2020s to have the cellular and molecular toolkit to dive deep into this issue,” Professor Roberts said.

“Merging technological advances with our team’s deep knowledge of human genetics, epigenetics, implantation and placental development will usher in a new era in human pregnancy research.”

Professor Benjamin Kile, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Adelaide, said the project was an example of the pioneering work taking place at the Adelaide Center for Epigenetics.

“This project has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the causes of pregnancy complications,” said Professor Kile.

“It’s exactly why the Adelaide Center for Epigenetics was created – research and researchers with absolute scientific edge, finding solutions to important problems.”

Other CIs in the project include Professor Ryan Lister (UWA), Professor Guiying Nie (RMIT), Professor Geoffrey Faulkner (UQ) and Associate Professor Luciano Martelotto (University of Adelaide).

The five-year project is titled ‘Using complex models of human trophoblast to study placental biology and disease’.

Placental research puts the spotlight on the first weeks of human pregnancy

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