The Bakardjiev lab at UCSF is studying how infections during pregnancy affect the placenta and damage the developing baby.
Why is this research important?
Infections of the placenta can lead to maternal and fetal illness and death. Preterm labor, for example, is often the result of infection. Every year 15 million neonates are born prematurely. Of these preemies 1.1 million die, and many of the survivors suffer long-term health problems. To improve the health of mothers and children, we need to better understand the mechanisms of placental infections so we can develop strategies to prevent preterm birth and other pregnancy complications.
Estimated preterm birth rates by country for the year 2010. (Blencowe et al., 2012)
We are working with the bacterial pathogen Listeria monocytogenes. Infection of the mother during pregnancy with Listeria causes fetal demise, premature labor, or neonatal disease and death. Infection occurs when humans ingest contaminated food. You may have heard of the recent outbreak of listeriosis that was associated with contaminated cantaloupes from Colorado. From August to October 2011, the outbreak reached 28 states. 146 cases of listeriosis were confirmed, and 30 patients died. The outbreak made national headlines as the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness since 1924.
We have identified the first fetal cells that become infected in the human placenta upon infection with Listeria. We characterized immune mechanisms of fetal placental cells that fight this bacterium. We've also identified bacterial genes that make it possible for Listeria to overcome the immune defenses of the fetal cells of the placenta. We are now starting to investigate how Listeria triggers preterm labor.
Examples of Listeria (green) in placental tissue and cells.
How will your contributions help?
We need your support to collect pilot data for new pathways on how Listeria causes preterm labor. This is critical to convince larger donors that this study can be done! If you want to support basic women’s reproductive health research, or are just fascinated by the mysteries of the placenta, please donate to our campaign! You can also help us by sharing on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or YouTube.
We are a small lab at UCSF that aims to change big paradigms! The principal investigator is Dr. Anna Bakardjiev, a pediatric infectious diseases expert who has developed novel approaches to studying infections during pregnancy.
The big picture
Pregnancy is amazing and challenging! Scientifically there is one overarching and unexplained paradox during pregnancy: how is the mother able to carry a genetically distinct fetus within herself? This is a mysetery because the immune system recognizes self versus non-self—that is, something that is part of our body (self) versus something foreign (non-self).
Examples of non-self entities are bacteria and parasites, but non-self entities can also be human tissue, as in the case of an organ transplant. People who receive an organ transplant must take medication to suppress their immune system to keep it from rejecting the new organ. The downside is that transplant recipients are more susceptible to infections. Like an organ transplant, a growing fetus is genetically distinct from its mother. Why does the maternal immune system tolerate the fetus? And how can the fetus be protected against infection under such challenging circumstances? These simple questions remain a mystery.
For a long time people have proposed that pregnant women are immune-suppressed to avoid immune rejection of the baby. But leaving the most important biological task in life to someone who is immune-suppressed and therefore more susceptible to infections does not seem like a smart strategy! Indeed, more recent scientific evidence suggests that this is really not true. The unique organ that mediates an immunological truce between mother and fetus, and protects the baby from infection, is the placenta.
What is the placenta? The placenta is an organ that is only present during pregnancy. It is located in the uterus and made out of maternal and fetal tissues. The two main tasks of the placenta are to nourish and protect the baby, but how the placenta is able to protect the baby both from maternal immune rejection and infection remains an unresolved paradox.
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