The placenta, a unique organ
"I have always been fascinated by how the human body works and was amazed to learn how common complications during pregnancy were – affecting one in five women," Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri reflects. When she first started specializing in the field, much less was known about how these complications arose, and even less was known about how to prevent or treat them. Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri focused her PhD research on investigating hormones in the mother's body that regulate fetal growth, and delved into research on the placenta; a temporary but vital organ that develops during pregnancy. The placenta provides the fetus with nutrients and oxygen. It also secretes signaling factors, including hormones that alter the mother’s body so she supplies nutrients and oxygen to the fetus. If the placenta does not function properly, the fetus will fail to grow with negative impacts on pregnancy outcome for mother and child. There may also be lasting effects on the child. This is because fetal organs are very sensitive to changes in nutrient and oxygen supply, and may be permanently altered during development, leading to organ dysfunction with lifelong consequences. In adulthood, this can lead to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular problems, or obesity. "By understanding more precisely how the placenta develops, we can better understand the development of pregnancy complications and the origins of later life disease risks. Importantly, we may be able to identify how these can be prevented," explains Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri. Her current work now focuses on this.
Health of both parents plays a role in pregnancy
Certain diseases in adulthood are already "programmed" in the mother's womb – and some factors have an influence on the child's health even before pregnancy - because of changes in the mother’s eggs. These include whether the mother has been exposed to stress, is overweight, eating a poor quality diet, and how well her body is able to undergo the massive changes that pregnancy entails. The other parent also has an important influence: "We now know that the environment of the father plays a role in the formation of the placenta and the development of the fetus," says Sferruzzi-Perri. For example, when the father is overweight, this can lead to changes in his sperm, and possibly also the hormonal signaling pathways in the mother at conception, which in turn can impact the development of the placenta. "We have considerably less data on the importance of the father’s environment and health status, compared to that of the mother. However, this is a key area which we hope to explore soon", she clarifies. A greater understanding of the environmental factors that affect the placenta could help doctors provide better health and life-style advice to couples who wish to have children, or assist in the design of therapies to prevent placental problems during pregnancy. These, in turn, will improve lifelong health of both the mother and child.