London, ON – Western University Medical Biophysics professor Charles McKenzie and Obstetrics & Gynaecology professor Timothy Regnault have received $3.7 million in funding over four years to develop a new technology based on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that will allow researchers to determine metabolism in the placenta and monitor changes in placental metabolism during the course of pregnancy. The funding is being awarded as part of the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Human Placenta Project.
The placenta is a powerhouse of an organ. Acting as the life support system for a fetus developing in a mother’s womb, it provides nutrients, oxygen, hormones and immune defense, and is essential in removing wastes.
External factors such as the mother’s diet have a significant impact in the health of a placenta’s metabolism, impacting the way the placenta develops and functions, which in turn affects the growth of the developing fetus before and after birth. Despite the role the placenta plays throughout this crucial time, there is currently no method available that allows direct measurement of metabolic processes in the placenta during early pregnancy.
“We believe that with this technology, we will be able to see early signals of what is going wrong in the placenta that we currently don’t detect or are unable to see,” said McKenzie. “Using this technology, we hope to be able to identify where the problems are earlier, so clinicians and biomedical researchers can investigate possible treatments they should be using on a specific patient sooner than they can now.”
While this technology could potentially be used to look at a number of different external factors and diseases during the course of a pregnancy, McKenzie and Regnault will focus their project on life-long maternal consumption of the Western Diet – an energy-dense diet that is high in calories from sugars and simple fats.
This type of diet has been associated with negative changes in the placenta, setting up a pregnant woman’s children and grandchildren for a predisposition to heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
“We are focusing on the Western Diet because of its prevalence in our society,” said Regnault, who also has an appointment to Physiology and Pharmacology. “Obesity rates are increasing, and we know this diet is being increasingly consumed, so there is potentially a greater number of people worldwide that are eating this diet – an exposure that may be having a negative impact upon the placental metabolism and, later, newborn metabolic disease risk that we need to be aware of.”
“The whole goal here is to differentiate the pregnancy that is going to be fine from the pregnancy that looks fine now, but in six weeks isn’t going to be,” he said.
McKenzie and Regnault have been working on this research for a few years, for this specific application. They are using hyperpolarized MRI, and this will be the first time researchers have used this technology to work with pregnancy.
Scientists hyperpolarize pyruvate, a naturally occurring molecule used by all cellular life for energy, which boosts the signal of the pyruvate enough that MRI can detect the molecule. The hyperpolarized pyruvate is injected into maternal circulation through which it moves to the placenta – scientists can then scan the mother, generating an image of the placenta that can be used to assess its metabolism.
The NIH grant also gives the researchers the opportunity to become part of a consortium of sixteen other investigative groups spread across the United States, Canada and Europe.
The grant is a unique form of NIH funding that is specifically listed as a cooperative grant, meaning all awardees will need to have teleconferences and in-person meetings with one another on a regular basis.