Endocrine News spoke with David Weinberg, PhD, project lead for the Human Placenta Project about why this new initiative is so important and how Endocrine Society members can become involved.
The Human Placenta Project (HPP) was launched in the spring of 2014 by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The goal of the project is to develop the tools and technologies necessary to safely and non- or minimally invasively assess placental structure, function, and development across pregnancy in real time.
Investigators take note: Applications for the most recent Funding Opportunity Announcements are due May 31.
Endocrine News: Why is the Human Placenta Project important?
David Weinberg: Proper development and functioning of the placenta is critical to health of the developing fetus. It serves as the lungs, kidneys, liver, immune system, and endocrine system, making hormones to help the fetus grow. We know that placental dysfunction can lead to pregnancy complications and health problems for mother and baby that extend far beyond birth.
Yet despite its importance, the placenta is perhaps the most poorly understood of human organs. Assessment of the placenta across pregnancy presents special challenges due to the need to avoid risk to the pregnant woman and developing fetus. Thus, most information on human placental biology is obtained by studying placental tissue obtained after delivery, often from pathological pregnancies such as preterm deliveries occurring predominately in the third trimester, from term deliveries in which placental development has already crested, or from in vitro model systems. There is a paucity of information obtained earlier in gestation when many pregnancy pathologies have their origins, and limited information gleaned throughout gestation from normal pregnancies.
The development of real-time, non- or minimally invasive methods to assess the development and function of the placenta in vivo safely throughout gestation would serve as valuable research and clinical tools for enhancing understanding of placental biology and rooted pathologies and for patient management. These research efforts may yield new insights into other areas of medicine as well, such as organ transplantation, cancer, and immunology.
The endocrine system plays a vital role in placental development and function across gestation. The basic research provided by the endocrine research community has provided the foundational knowledge that makes the goals of the Human Placenta Project seem feasible and will continue to be critical as novel technologies and assessments become available.
EN: What do you hope to accomplish through the Human Placenta Project?
DW: In preparation for studying the human placenta, the goal of the HPP is to develop the tools and technologies necessary to safely and non- or minimally invasively assess placental structure, function, and development across pregnancy in real time. We believe this can be achieved by drawing in researchers from diverse areas of science and by leveraging technologies developed for other organs or diseases. For example, non-invasive imaging methods such as MRI, ultrasound, and optical technology have shown tremendous utility in the areas of cancer, brain, and cardiovascular research, and suggest that application of these technologies to the placenta may be feasible. In addition, increased assay sensitivity for analytes present in body fluids and miniaturization of sensing devices offer the promise of minimally invasive continuous monitoring capability. Many of these technologies in their current forms cannot be applied directly to pregnant women, but they provide a window into what may be accomplished.
We recognize the tremendous value of endocrinologists to this important effort and are eager for their input and contributions.
Once we have a clearer picture of normal placental development, we may be able to spot—and possibly even prevent—potential problems earlier in pregnancy, to ensure better outcomes for mother and baby.
EN: How is NICHD supporting this effort?
DW: The Human Placenta Project is a key priority for our institute, and we are supporting the effort with outreach and funding. Our first task is to increase interest in the broader scientific research community; to engage not just placental biologists and obstetricians, but also researchers in other fields who haven’t spent time thinking about the placenta but may have creative ideas to contribute. The success of our efforts relies on research across these disciplinary boundaries.
To raise awareness and encourage scientific interest and collaboration, we are speaking at national and international meetings and hosting meetings of our own. We’ve held three meetings to date; the last one in April specifically focused on technology at the NIH campus in Bethesda. We would love to have more members of the Endocrine Society attend these meetings and help inform our research plans.
The NIH has also made significant investments in the HPP. Since the project launch last year, we have issued three funding opportunity announcements (FOA) totaling up to $44 million for FY15. These FOAs are intended to provide funds for the development of transformative technologies, the generation of diverse research teams, and the exploration of environmental influences on placental development. We anticipate making the first awards this September, and look forward to seeing what our grantees produce. Stay tuned for details about future funding opportunities.
EN: How can endocrine researchers get involved?
DW: The endocrine system plays a vital role in placental development and function across gestation. The basic research provided by the endocrine research community has provided the foundational knowledge that makes the goals of the Human Placenta Project seem feasible and will continue to be critical as novel technologies and assessments become available.
So, the Human Placenta Project could benefit tremendously from the contributions of Endocrine Society members both as investigators and as intellectual drivers of the research plan moving forward. We welcome placental research grant applications from endocrinologists, and would be happy to see more endocrine researchers at HPP meetings. There is already strong support from the endocrine community, and we look forward to continued partnership in this effort.
EN: Where can members go to find more information?
DW: Our website has full details about the HPP, funding opportunities, and meetings, including links to archived videos from past events. Endocrine Society members may also contact me directly. We recognize the tremendous value of endocrinologists to this important effort and are eager for their input and contributions.