• Issues in placenta growth occur in almost 10 percent of pregancies, with the only option of harmful-risk induced labor (EPA/National Geographic Channel)Source: EPA/National Geographic Channel
Researchers have found a way to deliver medication directly to the placenta while the baby is still in the womb.
Sophie Verass

9 May 2016 - 4:27 PM  UPDATED 9 May 2016 - 4:27 PM

Researchers have found a way to avoid life-threatening pregnancy complications by medicating babies in the womb and administering drugs safely into the placenta.

A crucial organ in the development of a fetus, the placenta is prone to malfunctioning in some 10% of pregnancies. Currently, resorting to induced labour is the only option for pregnant women with slow-growing or poorly functioning placentas.

Even though induced labour can save the life of the baby, it has other serious effects such as a high risk of infection, cerebral palsy, heart diseases and diabetes. 

Now an international team of scientists has discovered a way to use growth hormones to strengthen malfunctioning placentas, reducing the need for induced labour. The results were published last week in Science Advances.

During the study, the team found many interesting similarities between placentas and tumours. Lynda Harris, lead author from the University of Manchester in England says placentas indeed behave much like tumours - growing rapidly and avoiding the immune system - although they do grow in a much more controlled way. 

Using this information the researchers managed to use peptides, currently used as a way to home in on tumours, to “target” drugs directly to the placenta without travelling to other areas of the body.

The study was done in mice, with growth hormones sent to the mammal's placenta using nanoparticles coated with peptide. The drug did not cause any changes to fetuses of normal size, but caused the small ones to grow larger and consequently healthier in size. Additionally, it did not leave residue within the organs of the mother mouse, nor any of its fetuses.

As the amino acids also target tumours, researchers have flagged that this practice could be dangerous for pregnant women who have undiagnosed conditions, but the researchers believe that benefits would outweigh the risks.

At this stage, the team emphasises that further research and development will be required before this drug delivery system makes it to humans.

"Only three new drugs have been licensed for use in pregnancy in the last 20 years, two of which are used after delivery," the authors write.

"Technologies that can target therapeutics directly to their site of action [..] will circumvent the risks and side effects potentially associated with systemic administration of drugs in human pregnancy and should expedite translation of new treatments into the clinic."

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