Understanding the causes of complications in pregnancy

Understanding the causes of complications in pregnancy

  • Mother holding hands with a newborn baby
    "Placental biology is such an important topic"
Bridget Coila, Flickr 

Every year, 550,000 women worldwide die due to complications in pregnancy or childbirth and 20 million babies are born with low birth weight.

Professor Graham Burton FMedSci, the Mary Marshall and Arthur Walton Professor of the Physiology of Reproduction, says these are exciting times for placental biology research: “State-of-the-art technologies are enabling us to understand the origins, differentiation and function of trophoblast in ever-greater detail".

"The Centre for Trophoblast Research is playing a key role in these rapid advances as well as developing resources for the international research community. It has been a privilege to be part of this venture, and I thank the founding donor for seeing the invisible,” he adds.

A centre of excellence

There is nowhere else in the world that can the take the basic science from the placenta through to clinical practice. The Centre’s scientists and clinicians have made astonishing advances in building our biological understanding of the critical maternal-fetal interface and of the role of the placenta in complications in pregnancy – with many of the discoveries world firsts.

To gain maximum impact from the gift endowment, the Centre has used the funding to support various priorities as the number of people, collaborations and research projects has grown. Without the flexibility afforded by the endowment, the Centre would not have been able to reach its current level of research success and international recognition. The funding has also been critical in supporting timely and innovative projects that have leveraged further funding from other organisations, such as Dr Margherita Turco’s trophoblast stem cell project that attracted a prestigious Marie Curie Fellowship.

What the donor did in making the vision for the Centre a reality is remarkable – particularly in investing in young people and attracting those from different fields.

Dr Margherita Turco, Career Development Fellow

The importance of the in vitro system

Dr Turco says: “How does the placenta develop and how are the specialised trophoblast cells that make up the placenta generated? This is the central question of my project. Despite significant advances in placental biology over the last few years, disorders of pregnancy still occur far too frequently. Abnormal placental development occurring during the first few weeks following implantation is difficult to investigate due to ethical and practical considerations. Furthermore, current in vitro models do not accurately mimic trophoblast characteristics in vivo, so we lack the tools to study this process. I am looking to develop an in vitro system to study trophoblast function. This work will provide an essential tool and knowledge to understand early developmental processes and cell lineage relationships during placentation."

“It also has important translational impact for women and their babies. If we can understand what’s going on normally in placental development, then we can understand and dissect what’s going on in the pathological situation and start the path to developing treatment."

“From the beginning the Centre has been focused on identifying and then addressing the key questions in the field that are required to make a difference ultimately for the health of women and children. What the donor did in making the vision for the Centre a reality is remarkable – particularly in investing in young people and attracting those from different fields. Placental biology is such an important topic that needs to be studied and the donor provided the framework for people to ask fundamental research questions in this area.”

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Developmental biology is concerned with how cells acquire and maintain their normal functions, and cancer biology examines the way that cancerous cells escape from these normal controls.
Implantation of an embryo
The Centre for Trophoblast Research was founded in 2007 as a focus of excellence to promote scientific study of the placenta and maternal-fetal interactions during pregnancy.