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Q&A with Human Placenta Project Coordinator David Weinberg

Monday, March 9, 2015

In 2014, NICHD launched the Human Placenta Project (HPP), a new initiative to revolutionize our understanding of the human placenta and its role in health and disease.

We recently checked in with HPP coordinator David Weinberg to learn more about the initiative. Here's what he had to say:

How did the idea for the Human Placenta Project come about?

David WeinbergNICHD has been supporting basic research on the placenta for years, advancing knowledge of its fundamental biology and development. Yet we have only a limited understanding of human placental structure and function during pregnancy because of the special challenges of ensuring safety for mom and fetus. There is a substantial literature pointing to placental dysfunction as a source of trouble not only for the developing fetus, but also as a source of long-term health problems for the mother, child, and even the next generation. If we are able to assess the health of the placenta in real time during pregnancy, we may be able to provide better clinical management for those mothers, and ultimately we may be able to change the trajectory of the pregnancy in a way that leads to healthier moms and healthier babies.

The HPP funding opportunities to date have focused on the development of tools and technologies for use in human pregnancies. Is NICHD still interested in basic placental research, too?

Absolutely. Most of what we know about how the placenta develops and functions has come from a rich body of basic research. That research continues to lead the way in expanding our understanding of placental physiology and pathophysiology. NICHD is very interested in continuing to support this work.

HPP has a defined set of objectives aimed at enabling real-time assessment of human placental structure and function in ways that are safe and minimally invasive. Achieving that goal promises to yield clinical benefits, but it also will lead to new questions for which we will need basic research to explore.

This year's HPP meeting External Web Site Policy brings a new focus on imaging and "omics." What outcomes would you like to see from that event?

The upcoming HPP meeting will be very important to us in developing a strategy for leveraging the rapidly developing breakthroughs in imaging and omics technologies ("omics" refers to fields of research that examine biological interactions on a large scale, such as genomics). What we hope for is a rich and candid discussion of what these approaches can offer and where their weaknesses are. We have invited a diverse array of subject matter experts from each of these topic areas, which we hope will lead to active debate. It may be that some approaches are better suited for the goals of the HPP, while others are not. We need this input to prioritize our efforts to maximum benefit.

The Human Placenta Project just received a large influx of funds for this year. How will NICHD invest those funds?

We have issued three initiatives to launch the project. A major challenge for the HPP is to get past the technology barriers that make safe, real-time assessment of placental structure and function very difficult, especially early in pregnancy. These barriers make it impossible to do a proper assessment of environmental inputs, whether physical or behavioral, on placental health and development. The funds will be used to foster the conception and development of novel technology to overcome these barriers and to validate in animals or humans special tools for measuring the impact of environmental factors on placental structure and function.

For details about the latest funding opportunity, see RFA-HD-15-034: Developing Paradigm-Shifting Innovations for in vivo Human Placental Assessment in Response to Environmental Influences (U01).

What feedback are you hearing from the research community about this project?

The response from the scientific community has been overwhelmingly positive—both for the focus of the HPP as well as for our commitment to basic placental biology research. Of course, in this difficult funding climate, there always is an appeal for more funds for basic research, and we certainly understand that.

What has been particularly gratifying is the response from researchers who are from fields with little or no intersection with clinical or basic placental research. The HPP has raised their awareness, and we are hopeful that this will lead to new scientific collaborations that we believe are essential to the success of this project.

What else would you like researchers to know about the HPP?

Our Institute director, Alan Guttmacher, always points out that we have set audacious goals for this project, and that is absolutely true. The Human Placenta Project represents an opportunity to do something really important—to enable assessment of placental health in real time during the course of pregnancy. If we can accomplish that, we truly believe that it will lead to better clinical care and healthier moms and healthier babies. Moreover, we expect that the knowledge we gain from the HPP will benefit other areas of science and medicine, too. That would be very rewarding, indeed.

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To learn more, visit the Human Placenta Project website or email your questions to NICHDHPP@mail.nih.gov.

Originally Posted: March 9, 2015

 

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