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Pitt, Magee-Womens Research Institute-led Team to Develop Acoustic Tweezers, Other Methods to Track Placenta During Pregnancy

PITTSBURGH, September 29 – A transdisciplinary team led by researchers at Magee-Womens Research Institute (MWRI) and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine will be developing “acoustic tweezers” and other ways of tracking placental health in real time during pregnancy.
The five-year program was one of 19 selected for the Human Placenta Project, led by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), part of the National Institutes of Health, which has committed approximately $46 million to the effort for this fiscal year.
Throughout human pregnancy, the placenta is indispensable for embryonic development, fetal growth  and maintaining the health of baby and mother,  said Yoel Sadovsky, M.D.,  MWRI director, Elsie Hilliard Hillman Professor of Women’s and Infants’ Health Research at Pitt School of Medicine, and principal investigator of the Pitt research.
“Placental dysfunction can be the cause of common pregnancy complications, such as preeclampsia and fetal growth restriction,” Dr. Sadovsky said. “A fundamental challenge in perinatal medicine arises from our limited ability to diagnose placental disorders in real time and throughout pregnancy.”
The team, which includes investigators from Carnegie Mellon University, MIT and Penn State University, will focus on the outermost layer of the placenta called the trophoblast, which regulates maternal-fetal gas exchange, nutrient delivery, waste removal and the production of hormones. Scientists discovered recently that throughout pregnancy, the trophoblast secretes into the mother’s bloodstream tiny, bubble-like vesicles that contain small bits of genetic material called RNA.
By testing the trophoblast-specific RNA obtained from maternal blood samples, the researchers hope to monitor placental health. In one technique, they will employ “acoustic tweezers,” in which sound waves will be used to separate vesicles for study based in their size and other physical properties.
“As essential as it is, there’s still so much we don’t know about the placenta,” said Catherine Spong, M.D., deputy director of NICHD. “The good news is that science has advanced to such a degree that we have a better opportunity than ever before to learn how the placenta works. That knowledge may one day help improve clinical care.”
The project is funded by grant 1R01HD086325-01.

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