The amniotic membrane remains a fertile area of research according to Antonietta Silini, the Research Co-ordinator for the Centro di Ricerca E. Menni (CREM) at the Fondazione Poliambulanza Istituto Ospedaliero, one of the LifeSaver Project’s core research partners. She is also the Science Communication Coordinator at COST SPRINT Action – The International Network for Translating Research on Perinatal Derivatives into Therapeutic Approaches.
LifeSaver’s aim to create a bio-digital twin system that replicates the behaviour of the human placenta is symbiotic with the focused expertise on placenta-derived cells, and more specifically on cells from the amniotic membrane, that CREM brings to our project.
Silini tells us more about what deep exploration of the amniotic membrane could mean for modern medicine and how this work is ideally placed to advance the LifeSaver project.
THE RESEARCH CONDUCTED BY THE CENTRO DI RICERCA E. MENNI (CREM)
The laboratory at CREM in Brescia, which is directed by Professor Ornella Parolini, has twenty years of experience in the area of perinatal cell biology and placenta-derived cells.
“We have a profound knowledge of the placenta, but our main focus is on the amniotic membrane, the closest membrane to the baby,” says Silini.
“Our expertise also goes a bit further than the remit of the LifeSaver Project. We study the potential applications of amniotic membrane-derived cells in regenerative medicine applications. Silini explains that where there is tissue damage that needs to be regenerated, the research at CREM focuses on how these cells contribute to regeneration through their immunomodulatory properties, thus these cells do not differentiate themselves like bona fide stem cells. The context where these would be used is in inflammatory-based diseases.
“So inflammation is good, it’s not necessarily bad, but when it becomes chronic and difficult to control, it contributes to degeneration. You want to control or modulate the inflammation and ensure that tissue can regenerate and heal.”
Silini quickly points out that these cells are not to be mixed up with stem cells that can differentiate in much more varied and complex ways.
“Perinatal cells have a lower capacity to multiply and originate different cell lineages. However, they can act on immune cells that favour tissue homeostasis and regeneration. They can create the right micro-environment to ensure that cell differentiation can happen.”
HOW LIFESAVER AND THE WORK OF THE CENTRO DI RICERCA E. MENNI (CREM) COALESCE
The LifeSaver project’s aim is to develop an application which can potentially assess the toxic effects of pharmaceutical drugs that a mother might be exposed to during pregnancy. CREM’s expertise in both placenta and cell biology assists the LifeSaver project in establishing how the placenta is structured and the cells that will be necessary.
Silini feels that the synergy between the two projects is clear.
“So, it’s a 3-D replica if you want; a placenta modelled chip that’s perhaps made even more sophisticated due to the microfluidic component that brings together the complex components and interactions within the placenta to study the distribution of potentially harmful drugs or chemicals to the baby.”
Silini explains that it is a very challenging and complex project. In her words, the output is enormous.
“We are basing the model on the placenta in the first trimester, and there is very little data known about placenta structure during this period. You can’t conduct clinical trials during pregnancy. Developing a tool that can accurately predict which drug a mother can take or not take during pregnancy would be amazing, of course, “ Silini informs us.
Silini’s role and vision for the project
Silini’s role as Research Coordinator at CREM sees her input in every aspect of this laboratory’s research, but this field is not where she started out.
She is involved in everything; from grant writing and reporting to the discussion of research and results. She originally came from a different background. Her PhD is in oncology, which is quite different to regenerative medicine. When she first approached this field, she found it very fascinating and sees it as a vast research area. She also loves the idea of people with diverse backgrounds working together to reach a common goal.
“The most exciting part for me is the actual development of this tool. Putting all of these components and expertise together. The whole matrix of it and seeing it all come alive,” she says.
One of the first deliverables of the project for CREM was to set some boundary conditions which could be used for the first structure or model.
“We now realise that there are still incompatibilities. So, it’s going back and revisiting everything. There will be a lot of work, but the most exciting thing for me is seeing the results. It’s almost like pregnancy itself; you’re excited to see what the baby will look like,” Silini continues.
The aim is that by the end of this four-year project, the LifeSaver Project has an application that can tell us whether certain chemicals or drugs will reach the baby. Silini affirms that this is the starting point.
“If we can prove that, the next step is finding out if it harms the baby, so it’s a process. If we reach that goal, that will be an excellent start.”
The work that CREM is doing in partnership with LifeSaver and the expertise that they can share with our work is foundational to this project. We are as excited as Silini is to see what our shared work will yield in this field of research.