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graphic of cell with headset on for communicating

Unlocking the mysteries of cell communication

Oct 26, 2019, 01:10 AM by Donna Ramirez

graphic of cells with headphones on communicating

New research aids development of non-invasive methods of monitoring and improving the health of a fetus 

UTMB researchers and their colleagues in South Korea have unlocked mysteries surrounding how a pregnant mother’s cells and her fetus’ cells communicate throughout pregnancy. 

With this new information, the researchers can develop new non-invasive methods of monitoring and improving the health of the fetus. 

“During pregnancy, there is constant communication between maternal and fetal cells using sacs filled with chemicals called exosomes,” said senior author Dr. Ramkumar Menon, UTMB associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “Our prior studies have shown that the fetal exosomes signal to the mother’s body that the fetus’s organs have fully matured, which triggers the labor and delivery process. Given this, we sought to learn more about the extent and capabilities of this communication system in order to develop new ways to monitor and support the fetus during pregnancy.” 

To test exosome trafficking and function, researchers used mice that were genetically engineered to have certain exosome proteins glow fluorescent red and green when blood and tissue samples were stained and viewed under a microscope so they could distinguish between fetal and maternal exosomes. 

The researchers learned that isolating and tracking fetal exosomes traveling to the maternal side is a useful indicator of the fetus’s health and development that can be measured in minimally invasive maternal blood samples. Likewise, researchers now know that exosomes traveling from the maternal side to the fetus produces functional changes. 

“We’ve just received a $1.5 million, three-year contract to test a novel approach in treating pre-term birth,” said Menon. “We will test the usefulness of drugs enclosed in exosomes that can potentially cross the placenta barrier, reach the fetus and prevent fetal inflammation, a major cause of pre-term birth for which there is currently no drug treatment. Fetal inflammatory response is primarily responsible for pre-term delivery, which impacts 15 million pregnancies yearly and is responsible for a million neonatal deaths.” 

Other researchers who were part of the study include UTMB Drs. Samantha Sheller-Miller and Kyungsun Choi and Dr. Chulhee Choi from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.