Malaria infection during pregnancy poses serious risks to women and infants. The March of Dimes Foundation, an American organization that works to improve pregnancy and baby health, has now funded Carlos Penha-Goncalves' laboratory, at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia (IGC, Portugal), for their studies on factors and mechanisms involved in placental malaria. This is the first time that this American Foundation funds research from a Portuguese Institution.
Placental malaria is a condition that affects pregnant women infected with the malaria parasite (Plasmodium falciparum). This condition causes a range of adverse effects, including abortions, stillbirths, premature delivery and low infant birth weight. These pregnancy outcomes happen because malaria parasites accumulate in the placenta and lead to placental inflammation in response to the infection, causing placental damage and negatively impacting fetal growth.
The winning project from Carlos Penha-Goncalves' laboratory focuses on key factors and mechanisms that act in the placenta to protect the fetus from placental infection. The research team will investigate fetal placental cells, called trophoblasts, which are known to be important for maternal-fetal exchanges of nutrients and gases. Using a mouse model, they will investigate the role of these cells in securing supply of maternal blood to the placenta and nutrients to the fetus in response to infection. "This project will provide critical information to identify new therapeutic agents that ensure the function of the placenta in pregnant women infected with the malaria parasite to protect the developing fetus and the survival of newborns," says Carlos Penha-Goncalves.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), every year more than 50 million pregnant women are exposed to malaria. In Africa, an estimated 10,000 pregnant women and 200,000 infants die each year as a result of malaria infection in pregnancy.