Placenta plays pivotal “umpire” role to influence pregnancy outcomes

14 September 2016
Pregnant woman

Researchers have shown for the first time how the placenta “umpires” a fight for nutrients between a pregnant mother and her unborn baby.

The University of Cambridge study finds that the placenta actually dictates the amount of nutrients delivered to the unborn baby.

The findings, published in the journal PNAS, show that the mother’s health strongly influences the flow of nutrients to the foetus.  

If the mother has poor nutrition, high stress levels, metabolic dysfunction, or is obese, this can affect the flow of nutrients to the unborn baby and result in birth complications or impact on the baby’s development.

The study, carried out in mice, is the first to provide clear evidence showing the decisive role the placenta plays in this delicate balancing act, rather than merely acting as a passive interface which enables the transfer of nutrients from mother to foetus.

Dr Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri, a Research Associate at St John’s College at the University of Cambridge, led the study and says the research gives new insight into the role of the placenta.

“During pregnancy there is a kind of ‘tug-of-war’ going on between the mother and the foetus over who gets the nutrients that the mother ingests. This work shows for the first time that the placenta is the umpire which controls that fight.

“Understanding more about the placenta’s role is extremely important. If nutrients cannot be divided correctly during pregnancy, it can lead to life-threatening complications for expectant mothers, and long-term health consequences for both mother and child.”

The researchers observed how the placenta developed and acted in mice after making a genetic change in pregnant mice which caused poor growth.  They found when the placenta's growth and structure was impaired fewer nutrients were transported to the unborn offspring.

“The placenta is taking in signals all the time from the mother and the foetus. If the mother has some sort of defect in her ability to grow, the placenta will limit the amount of nutrients it allocates to the foetus to try and preserve her health,” Dr Sferruzzi-Perri says.

“What this tells us is that the mother’s environment is a very strong, modifiable characteristic to which we should be paying more attention, in particular to see if there are specific factors that we can change to improve the outcome of pregnancies.”

The next stage of the research will involve examining the signals that the placenta sends to the mother to affect the way she uses the nutrients she ingests, potentially providing important clues about biomarkers which provide an early warning of pregnancy complications.

Find out more about this study here.