Although many babies are born healthy, 5-10% of pregnancies are complicated by conditions such as pre-eclampsia, fetal growth restriction or pre-term birth. This causes some babies to be born too small or too early, and others may die in the womb or just after birth. Currently, there are no medicines available to treat these conditions, mainly because testing new drugs in pregnancy is risky. The pharmaceutical industry fears causing harm to the developing baby, so rarely include pregnant women in their clinical trials and do not invest in this area. The placenta (afterbirth) is the organ that develops alongside the baby and makes sure it receives the nutrients and oxygen is needs. However, a poorly-growing or poorly-functioning placenta is a major cause of pregnancy complications. My research focuses on developing medicines to help the placenta work more effectively, so babies can be born healthier. My laboratory has created tiny “envelopes” (called nanoparticles) which have a specific “address” signals on their surface. These signals ensure that the nanoparticles attach only to the placenta. When we package drugs inside the envelopes, the drugs are delivered to the placenta, but not to the mother’s organs or the baby. We hope that this new approach of treating the placenta to help the baby will mean that new, safer medicines are available to treat pregnancy complications.
Dr Lynda Harris is a Senior Lecturer in Pharmaceutics at The University of Manchester, cross-appointed between The Tommy’s Maternal and Fetal Health Research Centre (MFHRC) and The Division of Pharmacy and Optometry (DPO). She was awarded a PhD in vascular biology in 2003, which was followed by postdoctoral research on normal and abnormal placental development and function in humans. In 2010, she secured a 5 year BBSRC-funded Research Fellowship to develop targeted nanomedicines for placental drug delivery; after working for a year with Professor Ruoslahti at The University of California Santa Barbara, a renowned specialist in targeted delivery of drugs to tumours, she returned to Manchester to start her own lab creating novel nanomedicines to treat placental dysfunction. She was appointed as a Lecturer in DPO in 2015 and was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2018. She currently leads a team of 9 scientists and also serves as the Research Director of the DPO and as Scientific Co-Director of The MFHRC.