In 1998, researcher Yaacov Barak noticed a mutated gene in mice placentas that led to fatal heart defects in the fetus. The University of Pittsburgh researcher found that by fixing the mutation, he could correct the heart abnormality.
Barak shelved the idea, but about 16 years later, other medical scientists released findings connecting human congenital heart defects to prevalent placental abnormalities in human babies. Yet they couldn't find a cause. Barak said his past research with mice led him to surmise the placental gene mutation was to blame.
Now, he's planning to renew the project with the $1 million Magee Prize grant from the Magee-Womens Research Institute, which was announced Tuesday night at the inaugural Magee-Womens Research Summit.
Barak said he wants to better understand the heart-placenta connection.
“If we take any lesson from the mouse, and the work of the mice, then possibly there’s a cause to actually think the placental defect is causing the heart defects,” he said.
Barak said he hopes his research will lead to new possibilities for prevention and treatment of congenital heart defects.
Placental expert Myriam Hemberger of the University of Calgary and heart expert Henry Sucov of the University of Southern California will also participate in this research.
The funding will also allow the team to work together to generate more accurate heart and placenta models.
“We hope that this information that we are generating in mice could be conflated one day to humans,” Barak said. “This prize money is a godsend because this type of research could not be possible without it.”
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