Three academic scientists at two North Carolina universities are among the recipients of the first seed grants from the Amnion Foundation for research projects that will study cells derived from birth tissue to better understand fetal health and cancer.
Amnion, a non-profit organization founded by Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) Director Tony Atala, processes donated tissues from the placenta and umbilical cord to generate viable human cells.
The Winston-Salem-based group provides these cells to researchers in academia, government, and industry to support laboratory research and the development of cell therapies. Among its capabilities is isolating and growing cytotrophoblasts, cells that form the barrier separating a mother’s blood from the fetus’s circulation.
Amnion recently announced its first seed grants, awards that provide access to the foundation’s inventory of cells and reagents for research purposes.
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Rebecca Fry and Anastasia Freedman will use the grant to research how toxic substances in the environment affect the health of a developing fetus. Fry is director of the UNC’s Institute for Environmental Health Solutions and a professor of children’s health in the department of environmental sciences and engineering. Freedman is a doctoral candidate in Fry’s lab at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.
The scientists’ research will focus on toxicants that are ubiquitous in North Carolina, such as inorganic arsenic and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Not only are these substances carcinogenic, in pregnant women they can also affect the health of the mother and the developing fetus. According to Amnion, Freedman will study placental cells provided by the foundation to determine how these toxicants harm a fetus. She will also study how placental stem cells protect trophoblasts, cells that supply an embryo with nutrients.
“We are so pleased to have received this grant and are excited to examine these unique stem cells as protective factors against toxic environmental substances,” Fry said in a prepared statement.
An Amnion seed grant will also support cancer research at WFIRM. Shay Soker, a professor of regenerative medicine at the institute, will study how the tumor microenvironment affects cancer’s growth and spread. Soker is the scientific director of the Wake Forest Organoid Research Center, where his work includes making organoids – three-dimensional multicellular tissue cultures derived from stem cells. Clinicians use organoids to determine the best treatment plan for cancer patients; scientists use them to study cancers.
Amnion says Soker will use primary cells from the foundation along with patient-derived tumor cells to form a living stroma, the vasculature and connective tissue that supports an organ. Stroma for organoids will be used to study how cancer affects this structure, research that will help scientists understand the progression of the disease and its impact on patient survival and quality of life. Amnion says the research could lead to personalized treatments for cancer patients.
The other seed grant recipients were Min Jae Song and Marc Ferrer of the National Institutes of Health/National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Song and Ferrer aim to develop a way to test how drugs taken by expecting mothers affect the fetus. The scientists will use multiple cell types from Amnion to build a multi-cellular 3D model of the maternal-fetal barrier for preclinical screening of pharmaceuticals, infectious agents, and toxicants.
Amnion says it plans another round of seed grant funding next year, depending on the organization’s fundraising efforts this winter.