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Research Week 2018: Placental research ensures better outcomes for mom and baby

OHSU physician-scientist develops tools to detect, prevent pregnancy complications
Antonio Frias, M.D.
Antonio Frias’ work focuses on placental development and risk factors associated with placental dysfunction. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

For some moms, pregnancy and childbirth can be medically complicated and have unexpected outcomes. Preventing this uncertainty and ensuring better outcomes is what drives the research of Antonio Frias, M.D.

As the organ that joins mother and baby, the placenta is responsible for a number of critical functions, including blood flow, nutrient exchange and immune protection in utero. In fact, according to Frias, placental problems are linked to every pregnancy complication responsible for increasing rates of maternal disease and death worldwide, from preeclampsia to preterm birth.

“As health care professionals, we lack effective diagnostic tests for early detection of pregnancy complications, and we don’t yet have a good understanding of what the biology of these placental conditions may be. This limits our ability to prevent or treat them,” says Frias, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the OHSU School of Medicine. “We need to change this in order to ensure effective treatment and better health outcomes for both mother and baby.”

Antonio Frias, M.D.
Antonio Frias, M.D., (center right) meets with members of his research team (left to right) Jessica Gaffney, Victoria Roberts, Ph.D. and James Sargent, M.D., M.S., in their lab. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Identifying risks

Frias’ work focuses on placental development and risk factors associated with placental dysfunction, or when things go wrong with the placenta, with the goal of improving diagnostics and therapy. His research findings have confirmed that maternal factors, such as consuming a  high-fat diet or contracting viruses such as Zika can cause extreme placental injury in nonhuman primates and may chronically impair fetal health.

Using advanced imaging techniques on rhesus macaques, Frias has collaborated with researchers at OHSU and other institutions to create a mechanism that can measure blood flow and oxygen delivery to both the placenta and fetus. By transferring this model to women’s health care clinics, Frias and colleagues are beginning to understand placental function in both normal and complicated pregnancies. In the future, clinicians may be able to identify pregnancies that are at increased risk for placental complications and develop personalized clinical therapies to improve outcomes.

Offering the patient more

Looking ahead, Frias is eager to further refine diagnostic processes and capabilities. His team is actively recruiting 300 women as a part of the National Institutes of Health Human Placenta Project. With the help of advanced imaging technologies, Frias is testing the efficacy of various diagnostic toolsets to determine which can successfully discriminate between normal and abnormal pregnancies.

“The placenta not only allows the development of life, but it influences the health of mother and baby for the entirety of their lives,” says Frias. “If we can continue to develop technologies and tools that will allow us to track placental function early in pregnancy, we should be able to offer our patients something well beyond a commitment to help them through a difficult pregnancy.”





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