UF Health MedMatters

UF Leading Way on Fetal Growth, Placenta Research to Improve Patient Health Outcomes

Current research from the University of Florida College of Medicine has far-reaching implications on improving the safety of pregnant people and their children.

Helen Jones, PhD, co-director of the Center for Research in Perinatal Outcomes and an associate professor in the department of physiology and functional genomics, said her research into fetal growth restriction, common birth defects and the role of the placenta, will not only lead to better immediate outcomes for families during and shortly after pregnancy, but also improvements for decades to come.

“Labs studying the placenta are far and few between,” Jones said. “There are probably about 800 worldwide, and it’s a close-knit community. We all know each other.”

For the past 11 years, she’s been leading a nanoparticle development lab to improve placental function and in turn, fetal growth. No therapeutics are currently available for placental abnormalities such as those associated with fetal growth restriction or placenta accreta syndrome, or PSA.

Pregnancy ultrasound showing baby on his or her back

Her lab is also shedding light on another understudied topic: the role of the placenta in congenital heart disease, or CHD, which affects 1% of all live births.

Jones said UF is an ideal environment to perform such work because of the vast network of clinicians and scientists available throughout the entire medical college and UF Health Shands Hospital.

“I can work with colleagues across disciplines without ever leaving the building,” she said.

She said effective treatments for placental insufficiency and fetal growth restriction will not only create a safer pregnancy by reducing maternal and neonatal morbidities but also can impact the parent and child’s long-term health.

“The in utero environment can impact future health outcomes,” Jones said. “By alleviating pregnancy-related pathologies, via therapy before birth, we can lower the risk of parent and child obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. That can then reduce the cost burden of these diseases on the health care system in the future.”

John Smulian, MD, MPH, the B. L. Stalnaker Professor and Chair of the UF Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, said he is very excited about the department’s collaborative work with Jones’ lab.

“Dr. Jones has brought a new dimension to our work with the biology of reproductive and perinatal health,” he said. “The placenta is a critical interface and her work is at the heart of unlocking insights that have the potential to improve fetal, infant, child and even adult health, as we begin to understand the placental origins of early health and disease.”

About UF Health Shands Hospital

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University of Florida Health Shands Hospital has been recognized among the nation’s best hospitals in seven adult medical specialties. Overall, UF Health Shands Hospital was recognized as one of the best hospitals in Florida. In addition to being ranked among the nation’s top 50 hospitals in seven specialties, UF Health Shands Hospital also was listed as “high performing” in seven specialties, including abdominal aortic aneurysm repair, colon cancer surgery, COPD, heart failure, lung cancer surgery, neurology & neurosurgery and orthopaedics.