August 12, 2019

Leading maternal health research at Northern Health

Associate Professor Lisa Hui is undertaking leading maternal health research at Northern Health.

Lisa’s research aims to study the effect of blood thinning medications on placental health, and the release of cell-free DNA from the placenta.

“We’re interested in this research question as many women are now using a revolutionary new prenatal screening test based on detecting placental DNA in the mother’s blood to detect fetal chromosome conditions. It has become apparent that women who are on blood-thinning medications are more likely to have a failed result because it somehow interferes with release of DNA from the placenta.”

Lisa and her team will be conducting experiments in the reproductive health bio-bank located at the Northern Centre for Health Education and Research (NCHER).

“We’re so excited about this project because it’s the first project that will be produced from our bio-bank, which we have established with the support of Northern Health and the University of Melbourne,” she said.

“I’m working with a reproductive health scientist, Associate Professor, Natalie Hannan from University of Melbourne, so we’ll be building up this bio-bank resource, build up research here in the laboratory and further promote research in women’s health at the Northern,” she said.

“So it’s sort of the flagship pilot project, and we’re hoping the bio-bank will lead to much more research here, particularly translational research which will be relevant to discovering treatments for pregnant women and babies.”

Lisa’s experiments will involve using placenta cultured cells to understand why blood thinning medications might affect how placentas develop and release DNA.

“One of our hypotheses is the reason there’s less DNA released is because the placental cells are actually healthier and not dying and turning over as quickly. We know that cell-free DNA is released when a cell dies so we’re hoping that by studying these cells in the lab, we might be able to discover any therapeutic or beneficial effects of these medications on placental growth,” she said.

“And if that’s the case, there’s potential for some of these medications to be used for prevention of pregnancy-related complications that are due to an unhealthy placenta.”

For the wider community, Lisa’s research may ultimately mean healthier pregnancies for women due to “prevention of severe complications like preeclampsia and fetal growth restriction, which are major causes of ill health in babies and pre-term birth.”

“We will also be studying newer medications that aren’t in current use in pregnancy, so we hope they may have some novel therapeutic role in pregnancy,” she added.

Lisa acknowledges the support she received, not only in the small research grant provided by the Northern Health Foundation, but also from Northern Health.

“The research grant is really crucial to getting our research underway here because it will help fund costs of the laboratory, medications and the collection of samples. We’ll be having a medical student help us with the project next year and we’ve had a student this year do a lot of the pilot work, so the small research grant helps fund these activities,” she said.

“Separate to the small research grant, Northern Health have also agreed to fund a halftime research midwife to support the recruitment of patients and the collection of samples for the bio-bank over the next five years, so it’s a huge undertaking.”