Scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Newcastle University and the University of Cambridge (UK) publish this week on the cover of Nature magazine the most detailed cell map to date on the contact area between a mother and her future child. This atherosclerotic composition suggests possible keys to avoid the most common early problems and achieve a successful pregnancy without complications.
Researchers, including the Spanish Roser and Miquel Vento-Tormo brothers, managed to map more than 70,000 transcribed (transcribed DNA) healthy cells collected between weeks 6 and 14 of pregnancy thanks to complex bioinformatics and genomic techniques.
"The idea was to understand the mechanisms that occur in the first trimester of pregnancy without complications, so we created a map of all cells and their interactions to compare in the future the differences between healthy pregnancies and those with problems, explains Roser Vento-Tormo, of the Wellcome Sanger Institute.
"We have discovered which genes alter maternal immunity and allow for proper embryo development, explains Roser Vento
The analysis focuses on the first trimester as it is a critical time determining the survival of the fetus (and the next fetus). During these first weeks, the placenta embryonic cells – which interact with the mother's to modulate their immune response – are being formed – which try to avoid a situation of rejection.
Thanks to these, the embryo can adhere to the matrix in the decidua, which is the innermost layer of the pregnant matrix that thickens to promote implantation. In addition, it serves as a way of feeding and oxygenating the fetus in the coming months.
"For the first time in history, we have been able to see which genes are active in the cells that make up the decidua and placenta, thus discovering what they are modifying the maternal immune system and allowing for the proper development of the fetus," says Vento.
The chances of suffering complications during pregnancy are higher in the first few weeks when the fetus is not yet unified. In fact, two of the three miscarriages happen spontaneously during the first quarter.
Vento clarifies that for the time being, the study has focused exclusively on understanding a healthy pregnancy. However, "in the future we will be able to predict whether there is any change in the beginning of pregnancy, patient sample analysis."
Muzlifah Haniffa, a Newcastle University researcher, adds that these results will have major implications for a better understanding of what happens when a pregnant woman suffers from preeclampsia or even when miscarriage occurs.
In the future, experts will be able to predict whether there is any change in the beginning of pregnancy
For experts, this finding will also have a significant impact on cancer studies, as it is known that tumor cells use similar mechanisms to avoid the immune system and feed on blood flow and increase size.
An open access database
The results were obtained thanks to the creation of a tool developed in collaboration with Miquel Vento-Tormo and his team by the Spanish software developer YDEVS.
This database, called CellPhoneDB, collects information about molecules and their interactions, as well as predicting the most likely cellular interactions. According to Roser Vento, "this tool can be applied to any cloth, with my brother Miquel making it accessible to everyone."
Cellular map of the human body
This study is part of Human Atlas Cell, an international consortium led by Sara Teichmann, one of the main supervisors of this publication, and a researcher at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.
"With this initiative, we intend to make a comprehensive map of all human cells to better diagnose diseases," Vento said.