NIH-funded project takes a closer look at early placental development

Dr. Laura Schulz, associate professor of OB-Gyn and Women's Health, holds an adjunct faculty position with the Division of Biological Sciences.

Preeclampsia is a leading cause of both maternal and infant mortality in pregnancy. It’s thought that the condition starts with improper development of the placenta, particularly in processes that occur very early in pregnancy. Unfortunately, studying human placenta during early pregnancy has its challenges.

“It’s not safe to take samples, and even when researchers can obtain placental tissue from the first trimester, they have no way of knowing which pregnancies would have gone on to develop preeclampsia in the third trimetser,” explains Dr. Laura Schulz, Adjunct Associate Professor of Biological Sciences.

Schulz and her colleagues are using innovative cell culture models to understand how trophoblast cells differentiate in early pregnancy to form the major cell types of the placenta, both in normal pregnancies and pregnancies complicated by preeclampsia.

“The models are based on umbilical cord cells collected shortly after birth from control and preeclamptic pregnancies, and then reprogrammed into induced pluripotent stem cells or induced trophoblast stem cells, then cultured in two-dimensions and in three-dimensional organoids,” says Schulz. “We use these to study how each of the major trophoblast cell types forms in preeclampsia, and whether they have functioning mitochondria.”

Schulz and her co-PIs, R. Michael Roberts from the Division of Animal Sciences and Danny Schust from Duke University, were recently awarded a renewal of a five-year NIH research grant totaling more than $3 million in support of this research.

The award is supporting an undergraduate from the Division of Biological Sciences in addition to postdoctoral fellows and scientists from the other departments.