Testing for microRNAs to find out when the placenta isn’t working

Dr Bernadette Baker, Dr Rebecca Jones, Professor Alexander Heazell, Dr Sylvia Lui

Scientists have been looking to see if fragments of DNA-like material in a mother’s blood could be used as a sensitive test to find women at risk of stillbirth.

Many women who have suffered stillbirths had placentas that weren’t working as well as they should. A lot of research has tried to find ways of testing blood samples to tell when a placenta isn’t doing its job. This has usually focused on finding certain proteins that act as “markers” of disease. However, so far no test has been found that works. 

We have been looking at something a little different to try and solve this problem. Instead of searching for proteins, Tommy’s researchers have been seeing if testing for small fragments of DNA-like material – called microRNAs – could work instead. At the moment, doctors use this approach to diagnose certain types of cancer. 

We analysed the microRNAs in women at a high risk of stillbirth, compared to women with normal pregnancies. Scientists found that 11 types of microRNA in the blood and placenta were different in high risk pregnancies. Four of the microRNAs were lower in the placenta of babies with restricted growth. This suggests that lower levels of microRNAs may be the cause of the placental dysfunction. 

We also wanted to find out what effects lower microRNA levels have on the placenta. To do this, we treated normal placentas with microRNAs. We found that this caused a reduction in the cell growth of the placenta. 

We have been encouraged by these findings and believe that microRNAs are an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding the placenta. Ongoing studies will take this research further by looking at which cells in the placenta produce the microRNAs. 

We think that we could one day use these findings to create a sensitive test that will be able to tell when a woman is at risk of stillbirth.

Funding

This study is fully funded by Tommy's and takes place in a Tommy's centre

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