Mysteries revealed: how do maternal and fetal cells communicate during pregnancy?

The fascinating development of a fetus in a womb has been one of the major fields of research in the past. With recent innovation in research, the focus on this development has shown that messages are continually being sent between maternal and fetal cells by using vesicles filled with chemicals called exosomes. A study conducted at The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston previously showed that fetal exosomes signal to the mother’s body that the baby`s development has fully matured and these signals then trigger the labour and delivery process.

The research team then sought to learn more about the level and capabilities of this communication system in order to find new ways to monitor and help the fetus during pregnancy. The research involved using mice that were genetically engineered to have certain exosome proteins with green and red fluorescence, when blood and tissue samples are labelled and seen under a microscope, in order to discriminate between the fetal and maternal exosomes.

The teams found that feto-maternal and maternal-fetal trafficking of exosomes was indicative of paracrine signalling during pregnancy. The beauty of it is that the status of the fetus at any time during pregnancy can be assessed in maternal blood samples – a minimally invasive procedure.On the flip side, they found that the movement of exosomes from the mother’s side to the fetus can produce functional changes in the fetus’s development. Thus, these results showed how a pregnant mother’s cells and her fetus’ cells communicate throughout pregnancy.

Further studies are being conducted by the UTMB team and their colleagues in South Korea. The research groups are investigating how to find novel non-invasive ways of keeping track and bettering the health of the fetus using this method of communication.In this context; fetal inflammatory response is the primary cause of preterm delivery in pregnant mothers. It is believed to influence 15 million pregnancies yearly and is responsible for 1 million neonatal deaths.

The two research groups have received funding to test a new method of treating preterm birth, where they will test the use of drugs encapsulated in exosomes that can possibly cross the placenta barrier, reach the fetus and avert fetal inflammation. These results may prove of major importance in treatment and prevention of preterm birth for which there is currently no drug treatment.