Researchers at the Kansas University Medical Center have landed a $4.8 million grant to explore communication between mothers and their fetuses.
But, it's not communication in the traditional sense.
What principal investigator Dr. Joan Hunt is researching is how the placenta plays a role in how mothers' bodies readily accept fetuses. In particular, Hunt's work looks at proteins produced from a specific gene - the human leukocyte antigen - and how they help convince the mothers' immune systems to not attack the fetus as it would other foreign bodies such as a transplanted kidney.
"On a very complex, molecular level, it is talking, it is communicating," Hunt said.
Hunt, a distinguished professor of anatomy and cell biology, has been working on the question of the maternal/fetal relationship for more than 20 years. As one of the top researchers in the country studying the subject, Hunt has received a long list of federal grants and $15 million for research.
The most current grant is for five years and from the National Institutes of Health.
The grant also encompasses research from Dr. Carole Ober, a human genetics professor at the University of Chicago, and Dr. Margaret Petroff, an assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology at KU Medical Center.
The work has potential to reduce the number of miscarriages and other fertility problems that women face, Hunt said. Affecting one in nearly 10 couples, infertility is a growing issue as women wait until later in their lives to have babies.
Typically the human immune system is designed to attack foreign bodies. However, the placenta acts as a buffer between the fetus - which is considered foreign since it is made up of both maternal and paternal genes - and the mother's immune system.
The research centers on how specific proteins in the placenta protect the fetus.
"The mother is programmed by the baby to see the baby as a positive factor and not something to get rid of," Hunt said.
In some cases of miscarriages, there are not enough of the proteins, Hunt said. The hope is to be able to reproduce the protein in larger quantities to help with fertility.
"It is a wonderful field of research. When you see mothers with happy babies, to contribute in a small way to this kind of outcome, it is very gratifying," Hunt said.
Agencies such as the World Health Organization also are interested in the research for the reverse reason. The production of the protein could also be blocked and, therefore, used as a contraceptive, Hunt said.