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Archive for Sunday, January 28, 2001

1-28 ROGER MARTIN COLUMN

January 28, 2001

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"Unlike any other cell in your body," says the chair of Kansas University's department of pharmaceutical chemistry, "they don't just have one nucleus. They have several. They're three to four times bigger than other cells. They sprawl out and have irregular shapes."

In mid-January, Audus described his placenta research to a pharmacy continuing education group at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, which supplies him with placentas for his work.

The organ's cells may not be pretty, but they don't have to be. It's arguable that when it comes to human life, the placenta is the whole shooting match.

It's the function junction of the pregnant woman and the fetus growing inside her. It's here that her blood vessels and the baby's come within a fraction of an inch of each other yet do not touch. It is the filter through which mother passes air and food to baby, and baby passes carbon dioxide and waste products back to mother.

In the last decade, there's been a sea change in researchers' understanding of the placenta, says Audus.

Once considered a passive organ, little more than a leaky barrier between mother and fetus, it's now known to be dynamic.

For example, it contains proteins that actively hustle nutrients to the child. One kind moves glucose, another kind, amino acids. There are multipurpose transporters, too.

"Unfortunately," says Audus, "some of these transporters are also very good at moving amphetamines and nicotine to the fetus."

On the other hand, some placental proteins act like bouncers, rejecting substances that would otherwise reach the fetus. Some of these proteins are also found in tumors. As those with cancer learn, tumors are great at keeping drugs out.

Audus studies these proteins. Why? Because there are drugs you'd like to be able to give a pregnant woman -- if she's an epileptic, say -- that you don't want the baby to have. Bouncer proteins might help you do that.

Audus says, "My focus right now is figuring out how proteins that resist several different drugs do their work. I'd like to be able to pre-treat a mother with a compound that would create more of that protein in the placenta -- as a way of protecting her baby."

Talking with Audus deepened my understanding of the placenta. But I -- and most other guys -- are still largely ignorant about the working of women's bodies.

Please don't giggle.

It's a boy thing.

-- Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at www.research.ukans.edu. Martin's e-mail address is rmartin@kucr.ukans.edu.

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