Photo by David Quitoriano via Flickr
Photo by David Quitoriano via Flickr

Researchers have found a way to selectively deliver drugs to the placenta without harming the fetus, according to a study announced Friday.

The discovery could one day help prevent some premature births and treat complications such as preeclampsia, a condition characterized by high blood pressure and sometimes, fluid retention. The study appears Friday in the journal Science Advances.

The study was conducted by an international team of researchers, including Erkki Ruoslahti, Ph.D., distinguished professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute’s NCI-Designated Cancer Center in San Diego, and adjunct professor at the Center for Nanomedicine and Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, UC Santa Barbara.

Almost 10 percent of babies born in the United States are born premature, according to the March of Dimes. The underlying cause of many complications during pregnancy is often a poorly functioning placenta, the organ that nourishes and maintains the fetus.

“Our findings emphasize the similarities between placentas and tumors,” Ruoslahti said in a statement.

Many pregnancy complications are the result of the placenta not growing or functioning properly, but currently there are no drugs that can be used to treat those problems. Instead, doctors have to induce early delivery, which puts the infant at increased risk of developing infections and cerebral palsy in the short term and heart disease and diabetes later in life.

This new research has the potential to avoid these problems by treating the baby in utero, thereby avoiding induced labor.

“Placentas behave like well-controlled tumors,” said lead author Lynda Harris, Ph.D., of the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. “They grow quickly, produce growth hormones and evade the immune system,” she said.

“A lot of cancer research focuses on finding ways of delivering drugs to kill the tumor without affecting the rest of the body. We had the idea that if we could selectively target the placenta in the same way, we could deliver other drugs to help improve placental function and therefore treat pregnancy complications.”

The research was funded by a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council David Phillips Fellowship and by a National Cancer Institute grant. The Maternal and Fetal Health Research Centre, where the work was conducted, is supported by funding from Tommy’s the Baby Charity, an Action Research Endowment Fund, the Manchester Biomedical Research Centre, and the Greater Manchester Comprehensive Local Research Network.

–City News Service