The placenta is the Rodney Dangerfield of organs; it gets no respect, no respect at all. This short-lived but critical organ supports pregnancy by bringing nutrients and oxygen to the fetus, removing waste, providing immune protection, and producing hormones to support fetal development.
It also influences the lifelong health of both mother and child. Problems with the placenta can lead to preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, poor fetal growth, preterm birth, and stillbirth. Although we were all connected to one, the placenta is the least understood, and least studied, of all human organs.
What we do know about the human placenta largely comes from studying it after delivery. But that’s like studying the heart after it’s stopped beating. It doesn’t help us predict complications in time to avert a crisis.
To fill these knowledge gaps, NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) developed the Human Placenta Project (HPP) to noninvasively study the placenta during pregnancy. Since 2014, this approximately $88 million collaborative research effort has been developing ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and blood-based biomarker methods to study how the placenta functions in real time and in greater detail.
As illustrated in the image above, advanced ultrasound tools allowed HPP researchers at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk, and the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, to gain a detailed look at the placenta’s intricate arrangement of blood vessels, or vasculature. By evaluating both fetal (left panel) and maternal (right panel) placental vasculature in 610 pregnant people starting at 13 weeks of gestation, the investigators aimed to identify early changes that predicted later complications.
They observed that such changes can start in the first trimester and affect both the vasculature and placental tissue. While further research is needed, these findings suggest that placental ultrasound monitoring can inform efforts to prevent and treat pregnancy complications.
Another HPP team led by Boston Children’s Hospital is developing an MRI strategy to monitor blood flow and oxygen transport through the placenta during pregnancy. Interpreting and visualizing MRI data of the placenta is challenging because of its variable shape, the tendency of muscles in the uterus to begin tightening or contracting well before labor , and other factors.
As shown in the video above, the researchers developed a way to account for the motion of the uterus and “freeze” the placenta to make it easier to study (left two panels of video) . They also developed algorithms to better visualize the complex patterns of placental oxygen content during contractions (center panel) . The scientists then carried out initial visualizations of blood flow through the placenta shortly after delivery (second panel from right) .
They now intend to map these MRI findings to the placenta itself after delivery (far right panel), which will allow them to explore how additional factors such as gene expression patterns and genetic variants contribute to placental function. Ultimately, they plan to apply these MRI techniques to monitor the placenta in real time during pregnancy and identify changes that indicate compromised function early enough to adjust maternal management as needed.
Other HPP efforts focus on identifying components in maternal blood that reflect the status of the placenta. For example, an HPP research team led by scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, adapted non-invasive prenatal testing methods to analyze genetic material shed from the placenta into the maternal bloodstream. Their findings suggest that distinctive patterns in this genetic material detected early in pregnancy may indicate risk for later complications .
Another HPP team, led by investigators at Columbia University, New York, helped establish that extracellular RNAs (exRNAs) released by the placenta into maternal circulation reflect the placenta’s status at a cellular level beginning in the first trimester. To harness the potential of exRNA biomarkers, the investigators are optimizing methods to isolate, sequence, and analyze exRNAs in maternal blood.
These are just a few examples of the cutting-edge work being funded through the HPP, which complements NICHD’s longstanding investment in basic research to unravel the physiology of and real-time gene expression in the placenta. Unlocking the secrets of the placenta may one day help us to prevent and treat a range of common pregnancy complications, while also providing insights into other areas of science and medicine such as cardiovascular disease and aging. NICHD is committed to giving this important organ the respect it deserves.
Note: Acting NIH Director Lawrence Tabak has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 10th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
There’s been a lot of focus, and rightly so, on why older adults and adults with chronic disease appear to be at increased risk for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Not nearly as much seems to be known about children and COVID-19.
For example, why does SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, seem to affect children differently than adults? What is the psychosocial impact of the pandemic on our youngsters? Are kids as infectious as adults?
A lot of interesting research in this area has been published recently. That includes the results of a large study in South Korea in which researchers traced the person-to-person spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the early days of the pandemic. The researchers found children younger than age 10 spread the virus to others much less often than adults do, though the risk is not zero. But children age 10 to 19 were found to be just as infectious as adults. That obviously has consequences for the current debate about opening the schools.
To get some science-based answers to these and other questions, I recently turned to one of the world’s leading child health researchers: Dr. Diana Bianchi, Director of NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Dr. Bianchi is a pediatrician with expertise in newborn medicine, neonatology, and reproductive genetics. Here’s a condensed transcript of our chat, which took place via videoconference, with Diana linking in from Boston and me from my home in Chevy Chase, MD:
Collins: What is the overall risk of children getting COVID-19? We initially heard they’re at very low risk. [NOTE: Since the recording of this interview, new data has emerged from state health departments that suggest that as much as 10 percent of new cases of COVID-19 occur in children.]
Bianchi: Biological factors certainly play some role. We know that the virus often enters the body via cells in the nasal passage. A recent study showed that, compared to adults, children’s nasal cells have less of the ACE2 receptor, which the virus attaches to and uses to infect cells. In children, the virus probably has less of an opportunity to grab onto cells and get into the upper respiratory tract.
Importantly, social reasons also play a role in that low percentage. Children have largely been socially isolated since March, when many schools shut down. By and large, young kids have been either home or playing in their backyards.
Collins: If kids do get infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, what kind of symptoms are displayed?
Bianchi: Children tend to be affected mildly. Relatively few children end up in intensive care units. The most common symptoms are: fever, in about 60 percent of children; cough; and a mild respiratory illness. It’s a different clinical presentation. Children seem to be more prone to vomiting, diarrhea, severe abdominal pain, and other gastrointestinal problems.
Collins: Are children as infectious as adults?
Bianchi: We suspect that older kids probably are. A recently published meta-analysis, or systematic review of the medical literature, also found about 20 percent of infected kids are asymptomatic. There are probably a lot of kids out there who can potentially infect others.
Collins: Do you see a path forward here for schools in the fall?
Bianchi: I think the key word is flexibility. We must remain flexible in the months ahead. Children have struggled from being out of school, and it’s not just the educational loss. It’s the whole support system, which includes the opportunity to exercise. It includes the opportunity to have teachers and school staff looking objectively at the kids to see if they are psychologically well.
The closing of schools has also exacerbated disparities. Schools provide meals for many kids in need, and some have had a lot of food insecurity for the past several months. Not to mention kids in homeless situations often don’t have access to the internet and other learning tools. So, on the whole, being in school is better for children than not being there. That’s how most pediatricians see it. However, we don’t want to put children at risk for getting sick.
Collins: Can you say a little bit more about the consequences, particularly for young children, of being away from their usual areas of social interaction? That’s true this summer as well. Camps that normally would be a place where lots of kids would congregate have either been cancelled or are being conducted in a very different way.
Bianchi: Thus far, most of the published information that we have has really been on the infection and the clinical presentations. Ultimately, I think there will be a lot of information about the behavioral and developmental consequences of not being exposed to other children. I think that older children are also really suffering from not having a daily structure, for example, through sports.
For younger children, they need to learn how to socialize. There are advantages to being with your parents. But there are a lot of social skills that need to be learned without them. People talk about the one-eyed babysitter, YouTube. The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued recommendations for limiting screen time. That’s gone out the window. I’ve talked with a lot of my staff members who are struggling with this balance between educating or entertaining their children and having so-called quality time, and the responsibility to do their jobs.
Collins: What about children with disabilities? Are they in a particularly vulnerable place?
Bianchi: Absolutely. Sadly, we don’t hear a lot about children with disabilities as a vulnerable population. Neither do we hear a lot about the consequences of them not receiving needed services. So many children with disabilities rely on people coming into their homes, whether it’s to help with respiratory care or to provide physical or speech therapy. Many of these home visits are on hold during the pandemic, and that can cause serious problems. For example, you can’t suction a trachea remotely. Of course, you can do speech therapy remotely, but that’s not ideal for two reasons. First, face-to-face interactions are still better, and, secondly, disparities can factor into the equation. Not all kids with disabilities have access to the internet or all the right equipment for online learning.
Collins: Tell me a little bit more about a rare form of consequences from COVID-19, this condition called MIS-C, Multi-System Inflammatory Syndrome of Children. I don’t think anybody knew anything about that until just a couple of months ago.
Bianchi: Even though there were published reports of children infected with SARS-CoV-2 in China in January, we didn’t hear until April about this serious new inflammatory condition. Interestingly, none of the children infected with SARS-CoV-2 in China or Japan are reported to have developed MIS-C. It seemed to be something that was on the European side, predominantly the United Kingdom, Italy, and France. And then, starting in April and May, it was seen in New York and the northeastern United States.
The reason it’s of concern is that many of these children are gravely ill. I mentioned that most children have a mild illness, but the 0.5 percent who get the MIS-C are seriously ill. Almost all require admission to the ICU. The scary thing is they can turn on a dime. They present with more of a prolonged fever. They can have very severe abdominal pain. In some cases, children have been thought to have appendicitis, but they don’t. They have serious cardiac issues and go into shock.
The good news is the majority survive. Many require ventilators and blood-pressure support. But they do respond to treatment. They tend to get out of the hospital in about a week. However, in two studies of MIS-C recently published in New England Journal of Medicine, six children died out of 300 children. So that’s what we want to avoid.
Collins: In terms of the cause, there’s something puzzling about MIS-C. It doesn’t seem to be a direct result of the viral infection. It seems to come on somewhat later, almost like there’s some autoimmune response.
Bianchi: Yes, that’s right. MIS-C does tend to occur, on an average, three to four weeks later. The NIH hosted a conference a couple weeks ago where the top immunologists in the world were talking about MIS-C, and everybody has their piece of the elephant in terms of a hypothesis. We don’t really know right now, but it does seem to be associated with some sort of exuberant, post-infectious inflammatory response.
Is it due to the fact that the virus is still hiding somewhere in the body? Is the body reacting to the virus with excessive production of antibodies? We don’t know. That will be determined, hopefully, within weeks or months. Collins: And I know that your institute is taking a leading role in studying MIS-C.
Bianchi: Yes. Very shortly after the first cases of MIS-C were being described in the United States, you asked me and Gary Gibbons, director of NIH’s National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, to cochair a taskforce to develop a study designed to address MIS-C. Staff at both institutes have been working, in collaboration with NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to come up with the best possible way to approach this public health problem.
The study consists of a core group of kids who are in the hospital being treated for MIS-C. We’re obtaining biospecimens and are committed to a central platform and data-sharing. There’s an arm of the study that’s looking at long-term issues. These kids have transient coronary artery dilation. They have a myocarditis. They have markers of heart failure. What does that imply long-term for the function of their hearts?
We will also be working with several existing networks to identify markers suggesting that a certain child is at risk. Is it an underlying immune issue, or is it ethnic background? Is it this a European genomic variant? Exactly what should we be concerned about?
Collins: Let me touch on the genomics part of this for a minute, and that requires a brief description. The SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus is crowned in spiky proteins that attach to our cells before infecting them. These spike proteins are made of many amino acids, and their precise sequential order can sometimes shift in subtle ways.
Within that sequential order at amino acid 614, a shift has been discovered. The original Chinese isolate, called the D version, had aspartic acid there. It seems the virus that spread from Asia to the U.S. West Coast also has aspartic acid in that position. But the virus that traveled to Italy and then to the East Coast of the U.S. has a glycine there. It’s called the G version.
There’s been a lot of debate about whether this change really matters. More data are starting to appear suggesting that the G version may be more infectious than the D version, although I’ve seen no real evidence of any difference in severity between the two.
Of course, if the change turned out to be playing a role in MIS-C, you would expect not to have seen so many cases on the West Coast. Has anyone looked to see if kids with the D version of the virus ever get MIS-C?
Bianchi: It hasn’t been reported. You could say that maybe we don’t get all the information from China. But we do get it from Japan. In Japan, they’ve had the D version, and they haven’t had MIS-C.
Collins: Let’s talk about expectant mothers. What is the special impact of COVID-19 on them?
Bianchi: Recently, a lot of information has come out about pregnant women and the developing fetus. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that pregnant women are at a greatly increased risk of hospitalization. However, the report didn’t divide out hospitalizations that would be expected for delivering a baby from hospitalizations related to illness. But the report did show that pregnant women are at a higher risk of needing respiratory support and having serious illness, particularly if there is an underlying chronic condition, such as chronic lung disease, diabetes or hypertension.
Collins: Do we know the risk of the mother transmitting the coronavirus to the fetus?
Bianchi: What we know so far is the risk of transmission from mother to baby appears to be small. Now, that’s based on the fact that available studies seem to suggest that the ACE2 receptor that the virus uses to bind to our cells, is not expressed in third trimester placental tissue. That doesn’t mean it’s not expressed earlier in gestation. The placenta is so dynamic in terms of gene expression.
What we do know is there’s a lot of ACE2 expression in the blood vessels. An interesting recent study showed in the third trimester placenta, the blood vessels had taken a hit. There was actual blood vessel damage. There was evidence of decreased oxygenation in the placenta. We don’t know the long-term consequences for the baby, but the placentas did not look healthy.
Collins: I have a friend whose daughter recently was ready to deliver her baby. As part of preparing for labor, she had a COVID-19 test. To her surprise and dismay, she was positive, even though she had no symptoms. She went ahead with the delivery, but then the baby was separated from her for a time because of a concern about the mother transmitting the virus to her newborn. Is separation widely recommended?
Bianchi: I think most hospitals are softening on this. [NOTE: The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued revised recommendations about labor and delivery, as well as about breastfeeding, during COVID-19]
In the beginning, hospitals took a hard line. For example, no support people were allowed into the delivery room. So, women were having more home deliveries, which are far more dangerous, or signing up to give birth at hospitals that allowed support people.
Now more hospitals are allowing a support person in the room during delivery. But, in general, they are recommending that the mother and the support person get tested. If they’re negative, everything’s fine. If the support person is positive, he or she’s not allowed to come in. If the mother is positive, the baby is separated, generally, for testing. In many hospitals, mothers are given the option of reuniting with the baby.
There’s also been a general discussion about mothers who test positive breastfeeding. The more conservative recommendation is to pump the milk and allow somebody else to bottle-feed the baby while the mother recovers from the infection. I should also mention a recent meta-analysis in the United Kingdom. It suggested that a cesarean section delivery is not needed because of SARS-CoV-2 positivity alone. It also found there’s no reason for SARS-CoV-2 positive women not to breast feed.
Collins: Well, Diana, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. If there’s one thing you wanted parents to take away from this conversation, what would that be?
Bianchi: Well, I think it’s natural to be concerned during a pandemic. But I think parents should be generally reassuring to their children. We’ll get through this. However, I would also say that if a parent notices something unusual going on with a child—skin rashes, the so-called blue COVID toes, or a prolonged fever—don’t mess around. Get your child medical attention as soon as possible. Bad things can happen very quickly to children infected with this virus.
For the expectant parents, hopefully, their obstetricians are counseling them about the fact that they are at high risk. I think that women with chronic conditions really need to be proactive. If they’re not feeling well, they need to go to the emergency room. Again, things can happen quickly with this virus.
But the good news is the babies seem to do very well. There’s no evidence of birth defects so far, and very limited evidence, if at all, of vertical transmission. I think they can feel good about their babies. They need to pay attention to themselves.
Collins: Thank you, Diana, for ending on those wise words.