The programing of disease can be initiated in utero. The placenta, which is the only fully functional yet disposable organ, plays a central role in dictating the levels of nutrients, oxygen and regulatory growth signals available to the developing fetus. External insults, such as a high fat diet, or exposure to drugs during pregnancy can alter the function of the stem cells within the placenta. This can lead to poor metabolic "programming" of the fetus and contribute to life long health complication for the offspring.
My lab focuses on understanding how these external insults change the function of the stem cells within the placenta, referred to as trophoblasts. Specifically we focus on understanding the link between the changes in the function of these cells with the altered development of fetus. Using a rodent model of diet induced obesity, we have already demonstrated that the high fat diet induced changes in these cells can alter the development of the placenta and dramatically affect the survival of the fetus. Furthermore, we are interested in exploring how metabolic changes in the trophoblasts can lead to excessive production of free radicals within the placenta. Balanced free radical signaling is very important for good placental health. Since the placenta behaves like a tumor, many of the signaling pathways that we explore are paralleled in cancer biology.
By understanding, more clearly, the pathways that involved in linking maternal uterine stressors and fetal growth and survival we hope to develop therapeutic strategies which may target the very origins of disease. Improving "placental health" will impact a number of diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. All of these conditions have been demonstrated to have a strong association with in utero programing.
We utilize both cell culture and animal models to understand these processes and develop therapeutic strategies to minimizing the consequences of in utero stress on neonatal health. The range of techniques applied in my laboratory spans molecular approaches (advanced proteomics, RT-PCR, determination of DNA methylation patterns) to cellular (immunological approaches to determining protein expression, enzyme assays, live-cell microscopy; electron microscopy) to physiological methods (evaluation of blood pressure in rodents, determination of glucose tolerance, histology, immunochemistry). In association with clinical collaborators, the scope of the research in my group spans from molecules to humans.
In addition to the biomedical research in my laboratory, I am also the Co-founder of the McMaster Children’s and Youth University. This is a program that mentors undergraduates and graduate students in multidisciplinary science outreach aimed at middle school age youth. This unique skill set, which is quite different from the science communication taught in the research laboratory, provides connections to post-graduate employment opportunities. Additional information about my research program and Children’s Universities educational outreach opportunities can be found on my laboratory web-site: Raha Lab.