My lab’s research focuses on development and function of the placenta. The placenta is the life-line for the baby while in the womb. It intimately connects a mother with her developing baby, and performs vital functions required for pregnancy such as regulating nutrient exchange between maternal and fetal blood, and producing hormones necessary for fetal development. Placental maldevelopment or dysfunction is linked with a variety of pregnancy complications (e.g. preeclampsia, fetal growth restriction, preterm birth, placenta accreta, spontaneous abortion) that are major causes of maternal sickness and infant death.
In addition to affecting the short-term health of moms and infants, a baby’s life in the womb is an extremely sensitive time window, since this is when all organ systems in the body start (and in many cases finish) their development. If the environment is not optimal during this time-window, it can set the stage for organ maldevelopment and chronic health repercussions such as physical disabilities (e.g. cerebral palsy), metabolic impairments (high cholesterol, cardiovascular deficiencies, infections/allergies) and cognitive disabilities (behavioural problems, neurological disease). Since the placenta regulates the environment for the baby in the womb, its proper development and function is of paramount concern for long-term health.
Development of the placenta is truly a miraculous event. It is the first organ to form during embryogenesis, where it is comprised primarily of unique cells called trophoblasts. Trophoblasts constitute a heterogeneous population of cells that specialize in unique functions executed by the placenta. All trophoblasts come from trophoblast stem cells. How these different trophoblast lineages form is not well understood, and is the focus of my lab’s NSERC-funded research.
Due to its relatively recent introduction in mammalian evolution, trophoblasts have undergone some remarkable adaptations in order to perform their functions. For example, trophoblasts directly interface with maternal tissue, and possess paternal antigens. Thus, these cells should be recognized as foreign by maternal immune cells. Why trophoblasts are tolerated during normal pregnancies is not clear, but my lab hypothesizes that aberrant interactions between maternal immune cells and trophoblast cells cause placental maldevelopment and lead to various pregnancy complications and fetal organ maldevelopment. This work is the basis of my lab’s CIHR, ERA, BrainsCAN, and Preeclampsia Foundation Canada-supported research.
I am both a cell biologist as well as an avid anatomist and proud member of the Clinical Anatomy graduate program. I also teach various undergraduate, graduate, and medical-based anatomy courses.