Scientists in the UK have discovered a protein that appears to help embryos ‘stick’ to a woman’s uterus, and they believe this could lead to the development of a blood test that would predict a pregnant woman’s risk of miscarrying.
In new research published this week, University of Sheffield researchers concluded levels of the protein Syncytin-1 likely plays a central role in helping embryos stick to the uterus. From there, they burrow into the organ’s walls and begin to form the placenta.
“Recurrent miscarriages, foetal growth restriction syndrome and pre-eclampsia are all significant and very stressful complications of pregnancy,” Professor Moore tells The Telegraph.
“Eventually we may be able to develop blood tests based on our results to identify pregnancies that might be at risk and also develop appropriate therapies.”
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Professor Steve Robson, a spokesperson for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says this is a fascinating finding that could go some way in explaining why some pregnancies might implant and grow into healthy babies, while others do not.
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“Something we know from IVF is the primary cause that pregnancy does not go on is a chromosomal abnormality in the embryo; they don’t have the normal number of chromosomes or they’re not arranged correctly,” he explains.
There are a number of factors that influence whether the “normal” chromosomes are capable of implanting. The new research indicates that where there was a “good expression” of Syncytin-1, it appeared more likely a regular implantation would occur.
However, Professor Robson iterates that this process, and the subsequent development of a foetus, is incredibly complex.
“The embryo is half somebody else, so there’s a potential for the body to treat the embryo like a foreign invader. A woman’s body is incredibly amazing in that it’s able to allow what is half a foreign invader to integrate and grow and become part of the woman’s own system,” he says.
One key element of this process is the woman’s immune system, which needs to become tolerant to the foetus as it grows.
“This is mediated by a lot of medical substances that have a ‘dialogue’. There’s a constant dialogue going on between the embryos and the woman’s immune system,” Professor Robson says. (Post continues after gallery.)
“Syncytin-1 may well be one of those messengers. It might be one of the ‘code words’ that are key to a woman’s body accepting and allowing the new baby to grow.”
However, whether this information will translate to a blood test that’s of use to the average pregnant woman, who’s concerned about having an early pregnancy loss or developing pre-eclampsia, isn’t immediately clear.
“How do we take it from a lab finding – where we test an embryo, then we find it seems to express this protein and these are the embryos that seem to go onto a crash-hot pregnancy – and translate it and make it a useful clinical test?” Professor Robson asks.
The scientific side of developing the test is an valid consideration — but Professor Robson stresses the potential emotional impact for the women who use it is equally important.
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For instance, if a woman experiencing what seems to be a normal and healthy pregnancy were to undertake such a test, only to receive a worrying result, it might just serve to make her anxious.
“She might spend the rest of the pregnancy absolutely terrified something’s going to go wrong. So many women have so many worries and apprehensions in early pregnancy as it is,” Professor Robson reasons.
This would only be made worse, he adds, by the fact there’s not really a practical course of action to take from there. If an embryo hasn’t implanted properly, there’s nothing that can be done to change that.
“I think you’ve always got to be very cautious of doing a test if you haven’t got an answer. If you can’t do anything about the results, then maybe it’s better to not do the test,” Professor Robson says.
This will be an interesting one to watch.
Main image: iStock images
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