Investigating the placenta: Stowers scientists’ discovery shows why this oft-overlooked organ should receive more attention

By | June 7, 2023

Graphical schematic of fully developed mouse placenta at 14.5 days post conception

image: Graphical schematic of fully developed mouse placenta at 14.5 days post conception (top). Fluorescent images of various placental cell types illustrating multiple copies of the genome (white dots) within the cells (bottom).
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Credit: Stowers Institute for Medical Research

KANSAS CITY, MO—June 7, 2023—The placenta, critical to the healthy development of the embryo, is a multifunctional organ with a precise life span: the length of a pregnancy. New research from the Stowers Institute for Medical Research suggests that further exploration of the placenta’s roles and capabilities could one day lead to insights into positive pregnancy outcomes.

The study published in Development on June 6, 2023, focuses on a unique property of many cells that make up the placenta that explains how these cells play essential functional and physical roles to support a developing embryo.

“After birth, the placenta is often thrown into the medical trash can,” explained Stowers researcher Jennifer Gerton, Ph.D. “This makes it the most neglected, underappreciated, and understudied organ in reproductive science.”

Placental cells are very large and have high metabolic activity, which allows them to act as a physical barrier and facilitate the exchange of nutrients and hormones between mother and baby. New insights from mouse research led by former postdoctoral researcher Vijay Singh, Ph.D., of the Gerton Lab, could help researchers and clinicians understand in more detail how the placenta supports healthy human pregnancies.

“We really worry about conditions like birth defects and preterm birth, but we often focus solely on the baby,” Gerton said. “Many of these problems affecting the fetus originate from the placenta and, until we understand more about them, we are missing vital information.”

Normally, when cells divide, their chromosomes are first duplicated and then split between the two new cells. The distinguishing feature of the placental cells identified here originates from a modified cell cycle, where following chromosome replication, the cell does not divide and instead retains an entire extra chromosome set. This cycle can occur repeatedly so that placental cells grow to gigantic proportions with hundreds of chromosome copies, a characteristic called polyploidy.

While some placental cells were already known to be polyploid, a surprising fact revealed in the current study is that many cell types in a mouse placenta have this characteristic. “When each cell has multiple copies of the genome, that makes them very robust. The large size also helps create a barrier between the developing embryo and the mother,” Gerton said. “The placenta may be the most polyploid organ in a pregnant female mouse, but more research into polyploidy is needed.” .

Polyploid placental cells are essential for normal placental development, and a healthy placenta is vital for embryonic development and a successful pregnancy. Problems with the placenta are linked to preterm birth, restricted fetal growth, preeclampsia and even fetal death. The placenta performs various functions including transporting nutrients from mother to fetus, producing hormones and blood cells, and protecting the developing embryo from the mother’s immune system which would otherwise reject it.

The study revealed that the modified cell cycle that controls polyploidy is governed by a regulatory gene called My C which is found in organisms as diverse as fruit flies, mice, and humans. Furthermore, My C supports DNA replication and prevents premature cellular aging of the placenta.

The team made a genetic mutation in My C which prevented cells from achieving polyploidy in the mouse placenta. “Based on the result, we hypothesize that if human placental cells do not achieve polyploidy, for example due to environmental toxins such as alcohol or cigarette smoke, the placenta will not be able to do its job and sustain a pregnancy.” healthy,” Gerton said.

“Many people donate organs for scientific research,” Singh said. “If more parents were aware of the benefit of studying the human placenta, perhaps they would be willing to donate theirs to further research.”

“We could learn a lot if more attention is paid to the placenta which can be the cause of disease in a baby,” Gerton said. “I feel that generally as scientists and as a society, we’re just not giving the placenta due consideration.”

Read more here on Of development Search highlighting.

Other authors include Huzaifa Hassan, Fengyan Deng, Ph.D., Dai Tsushiya, Ph.D., Sean McKinney, Ph.D., and Kevin Ferro, Ph.D.

Funding for this work was provided by the Stowers Institute for Medical Research.

About Stowers Institute for Medical Research

Founded in 1994 through the generosity of Jim Stowers, founder of American Century Investments, and his wife Virginia, the Stowers Institute for Medical Research is a non-profit biomedical research organization with a focus on fundamental research. Its mission is to expand our understanding of the secrets of life and improve the quality of life through innovative approaches to the cause, treatment and prevention of disease.

The Institute is composed of 20 independent research programs. Of the approximately 500 members, more than 370 are scientific staff including principal investigators, technology center directors, postdoctoral scientists, graduate students, and technical support staff. Learn more about the Institute at www.stowers.organ and its graduate program at www.stowers.org/gradschool.

Media contact:

Joe Chiodo, head of media relations

742.462.8529

press@stowers.org


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