Targeting microRNAs in the placenta to find new treatments for stillbirth

Our researchers want to find out more about some of the tiny molecules that are present in the placenta in the hope that they can find new treatments that help babies grow properly and reduce the risk of stillbirth.
  • Authors list

    Dr Lynda Harris, Frances Beards, Dr Karen Forbes, Dr Bernadette Baker, Professor Alexander Heazell

    Start date: April 2021
    End date: March 2022

  • Research centre

  • Research status

    Ongoing projects

Why do we need this research?

When the placenta is failing, the baby inside the womb cannot get the nutrients and oxygen that it needs. This can stop the baby from growing as it should and is also thought to be the leading cause of stillbirth. We urgently need new treatments that can remedy this, so that we can reduce the risk of stillbirth and improve lifelong health.

Tommy’s researchers have already shown that microRNAs (miRNAs) can be linked to problems with the placenta. These tiny molecules are found inside the cells of the placenta and help to control how it grows and works. Our researchers have shown that there are specific miRNAs that are seen either more or less often in failing placentas, compared with healthy placentas. We now want to find out more about these miRNAs so that we can try and develop new drugs that can make the placenta function better.

What’s happening in this project?

In this project, Tommy’s researchers are looking in more detail at a larger number of donated placentas so that they can confirm which miRNAs seem to be associated with a failing placenta. These placentas are from pregnancies where the baby’s estimated weight dropped significantly between the last antenatal visit and delivery, despite the baby being born at a healthy weight, and from pregnancies where the baby had a low birthweight. By comparing with placentas from healthy pregnancies, the team will find out which miRNAs appear either more or less often in the placentas that are failing.

Our researchers will then find out whether they can use these miRNAs to make failing placentas work better. Working in the lab, the team will treat tissue from both healthy and failing placentas with molecules that either mimic or inhibit specific miRNAs to see whether they can improve the survival and behaviour of the cells in the placenta. If the team find that any of these molecules improve how well the placenta is working, they could then be combined with placental homing peptides – small molecules that bind only to the surface of the placenta and deliver drugs right where they are needed – and tested in animal models.

What difference will this project make?

This project will help us understand more about the miRNAs that are linked to problems with the placenta. Using this information, it may be possible to develop new treatments to help women whose placentas are failing so that we can make sure their babies grow as they should and help to prevent stillbirth.