In its quest to find the causes of preterm birth, the March of Dimes champions a range of research initiatives at research sites across the country. During Friday’s March of Dimes lecture, one investigator will share data from the organization’s Prematurity Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
The session will take place from 1 to 2 pm in Ballroom D.
Researcher Samuel Parry, MD, chief of maternal fetal medicine and the Franklin Payne professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Penn, will focus on the theme of placental dysfunction — highlighting two projects in particular. First, he’ll explore the role of the placenta microbiome in preterm birth. Next he’ll discuss the development of a novel research tool called “placenta-on-a-chip,” for studying placental physiology.
When he applied for March of Dimes funding, Dr. Parry proposed comparing the placenta microbiome in preterm and full-term births as part of his investigation of placenta dysfunction.
“For most of the history of medicine, the uterus and the placenta were thought to be sterile,” Dr. Parry said. “That concept was challenged by some investigators with the Human Microbiome Project several years ago. Unfortunately, what we found is that we can’t distinguish an actual placenta microbiome from contamination controls. So that has generated a fair amount of discussion about whether or not there is a placenta microbiome. It’s a very important question because it’s driving a lot of research, and there’s concern we’re getting off track.”
Dr. Parry will share his data that shows the placenta microbiome to be similar to contamination controls like contaminants in DNA extraction kits.
“I would like there to be a placenta microbiome, but you have to look at the evidence,” he said. “This isn’t the first controversy that has occurred with microbiome research. We had a similar debate about whether there’s a microbiome in our lungs. If there is any sort of microbiome in the placenta, it’s at a very low level, but answering the question will be important to preterm birth research.”
Dr. Parry will then discuss his placenta on a chip, which was developed in collaboration with the School of Engineering at Penn.
“Because the human placenta is unique among animals, we spend a lot of time criticizing each other’s models because whatever model you choose comes with limitations,” he said. “We developed a model on a microfluidic chip about the size of a microscope slide. On one side of the chip, we have the cells that line the fetal blood vessels in the placenta. Then we have a semipermeable membrane. Then on the other side we have the trophoblast cells.
“By creating the two layers of cells that separate the maternal from the fetal blood, we have an opportunity to study the transport of anything across the placenta. We can see how the different metabolic problems we find in the placenta influence placenta function, mitochondrial function, etc.”
Dr. Parry said he will also spend a few minutes of his lecture discussing the unique funding mechanism created by the March of Dimes, and how the organization’s efforts have identified gaps in the medical knowledge regarding preterm birth and then identified research centers capable of working to fill those gaps.
“It’s really a novel approach,” he said. “The March of Dimes method leads to some high-risk research, but with their funding and multiple research centers attacking the problem from all angles, I think there’s a high likelihood for some success in helping us understand what causes preterm birth. I think it’s a great approach for studying a problem.”