New insights into how human embryos are protected in womb

  • Date

    Mon 12 Feb 18


We are involved in international immunological research which has revealed new insights into the mechanisms by which human embryos are protected within the womb.

Led by Professor Nelson Fernández, from our School of Life Sciences, the project is part of an ongoing research into the evolving function and key role of the protein PIF (Preimplantation Factor), which is released by the human embryo at an early stage of development.

This work has clarified further one of the most intriguing questions in biology: why does the mother’s immune system not reject her developing foetus in the way that it would reject a graft from its father’s tissues?

This ongoing research also involves Dr Eytan Barnea, from the Society for the Investigation of Early Pregnancy and BioIncept, LLC in New York. At Essex, work led by Professor Fernández has revealed that a key mechanism of PIF action involves regulating the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genetic system, which protects the embryo from being attacked by the mother’s immune system that otherwise could result in miscarriage.

This work has important implications not only in preventing miscarriages, but more broadly in successful organ transplants. Based on this data future studies will focus on internal regulation of PIF expression in the placenta and synergy with other pro-tolerance molecules aiming to protect against pregnancy complications.

PIF has completed a Phase I first-in-human clinical trial, which was awarded Fast-Track by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration, USA). As part of this collaboration clinicians are looking to test the possible therapeutic use of synthetic PIF in women who have experienced early stage miscarriages. There is evidence to indicate these may be caused by abnormal immunological interactions between the mother and the foetus.

This work raises the real possibility of using as a biomarker to predict the success or failure of IVF treatment in couples experiencing recurrent miscarriage or difficulties in conceiving and other early pregnancy disorders. The data generated at Essex will lead to further translational studies, where treating pregnant women with PIF may reduce inflammation-related miscarriages.

The research, published in the Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry journal, is part of Professor Fernández’s research into human reproduction.

“This latest research is an important contribution to the understanding of human pregnancy and immunological tolerance and we will be watching the PIF clinical trials with interest,” added Professor Fernández.