From conception to birth: celebrating a decade of the Centre for Trophoblast Research

The Centre for Trophoblast Research, ten years old today, is helping transform our understanding of the earliest stages of our lives — and in particular, the role of the placenta and interactions between the mother and her unborn child.

Confocal laser scanning image stack of a human placenta terminal villi (where nutrients and waste transport take place) (Credit: Romina Plitman)

Established at the University of Cambridge in 2007 through an endowment from an anonymous alumnus, the Centre for Trophoblast Research has been at the forefront of research aiming to alleviate suffering resulting from complications of pregnancy, such as miscarriage, growth restriction and stillbirth. These conditions remain a major cause of maternal and infant illness and death worldwide.

“Given how crucial a healthy pregnancy is not only to a baby’s birth, but also to his or her future life, it’s essential that we understand how the placenta develops and functions to support the baby,” says Professor Graham Burton, Director of the Centre.

“Our Centre strives to understand the process from conception through to birth, and how to minimise the risks both to mother and child. Our team is at the absolute top of its field, and has made many significant discoveries of the past decade. We look forward to further exciting discoveries over the next ten years.”

Organoid grown from human endometrial cells (Credit: Margherita Turco)

Recent work at the Centre led by Dr Margherita Turco has involved growing miniature functional models of the lining of the womb in culture. These organoids, as they are known, are expected to provide new insights into how the placental and maternal tissues interact during the first few weeks of pregnancy, and into conditions such as endometriosis, a painful disorder that affects as many as two million women in the UK.

Another recent high profile breakthrough at the Centre came from Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, who developed a new technique that allows embryos to develop in vitro beyond the implantation stage (when the embryo would normally implant into the womb). This work will enable the team to analyse for the first time key stages of human embryo development up to 13 days after fertilisation.

The work of the centre has the potential to make a dramatic impact on people’s lives. Its researchers are working with colleagues in Africa to understand why pre-eclampsia, a condition thought to be caused by the placenta developing abnormally, is more common in African women. Dr Annettee Nakimuli and Professor Ashley Moffett have shown that this is likely to be down to combinations of key immune genes that may, conversely, protect women from other diseases common to the continent.

Young mum — Mphatso Gumulira, 15, with her son Zayitwa (Credit: DFID)

While the research at the centre focuses on the mother and the fetus, its implications stretch much further into life. Researchers including Professors Abby Fowden, Dino Giussani, and Sue Ozanne, for example, are studying how the environment in the womb — particularly low levels of oxygen — can programme the child for increased risk of diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes in later life.

Research at the centre spans the biological sciences — from stem cells to epigenetics to reproductive biology — as well as clinical studies and epidemiology. But Dr Michelle Oyen from the Department of Engineering demonstrates the interdisciplinary nature of its research. Dr Oyen’s work is looking at the mechanics of birth, and in particular what leads the amniotic sac to burst — and why this happens early in some cases, leading to miscarriage or still birth.

Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, says: “We are immensely grateful for the philanthropic gift that has made this centre world-leading in its expertise. Its research has the potential to benefit millions of children and their mothers worldwide each year, through a better understanding of the vital mechanisms that support pregnancy and birth.”

The 10th anniversary is being marked by a symposium on 11 July held at St John’s College, Cambridge, at which researchers from the centre will discuss their latest work.