A healthy placenta is a vital part of a healthy pregnancy. But if something goes wrong with the placenta's functioning, mothers-to-be can develop serious complications, such as preeclampsia and fetal growth restriction — conditions that can lead to long-term health consequences for their babies.
Unfortunately, those complications aren't easy to fix, according to a new study published in Science Advances. Treatment options for malfunctioning placentas are "severely lacking," the researchers wrote, "mainly because of the risk of causing harm to the fetus." Instead, when something's going wrong with the placenta, doctors may be forced to induce labor.
A new treatment option: In an important first for the scientific community, researchers have found a way to send medicine directly into the placenta without harming the fetus, according to Science News Journal.
Their surprising strategy? Treating the placenta like a tumor.
"Placentas behave like well-controlled tumors," lead researcher Lynda Harris said in a statement. "They grow quickly, produce growth hormones and evade the immune system."
That means using peptides, which are short chains of amino acids. They're valuable tools for treating cancer because they can specifically target cancerous tumor cells. That's what may make them ideal for treating malfunctioning placentas.
"A lot of cancer research focuses on finding ways of delivering drugs to kill the tumor without affecting the rest of the body," Harris said. "We had the idea that if we could selectively target the placenta in the same way, we could deliver other drugs which help improve placental function and therefore treat pregnancy complications."
It works in mice. Through experiments with mice, researchers identified two tumor-fighting peptides that will "perform the same function on a placenta, delivering drugs which improve placental function and benefit the growing baby without causing it harm," according to the press release.
Using the breakthrough technique, the researchers were able to deliver a growth hormone to placentas in pregnant mice.
The hormone helped undersized fetuses to grow, and had no adverse effects on normal-sized fetuses. What's more, "there were no signs that these drugs built up in the mouse's organs, instead passing out of the body, and there were no drugs found in the mouse fetuses," according to the release.
The researchers hope their findings will spur the development of the first "placenta-specific therapeutics" to treat complications caused by placenta malfunction, they wrote in the study.
No word yet on how those therapeutics would interfere with your ability to chow down on your placenta — although you probably shouldn't do that either way.