Zietchick Research Institute discovers that premature babies produce a pregnancy hormone after birth

November 07 09:15 2019

In a study funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH), Zietchick Research Institute found that human chorionic gonadotropin, commonly known as hCG, is produced by preemies after they are born. The hormone hCG is made in large quantities by the placenta during pregnancy. However, until now, it was not known that this hormone continues to be produced by the premature infant after separation from the placenta (which occurs at birth).

Importantly, Zietchick Research Institute also discovered that infants with low hCG have greater odds of developing retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), a serious eye disorder that occurs in premature infants, especially those born under 2.5 lbs.  This finding has important implications for the role of hCG in eye development. This study entitled “The postnatal presence of human chorionic gonadotropin in preterm infants and its potential inverse association with retinopathy of prematurity” has recently been published by Pediatric Research—the official publication of the American Pediatric Society, the European Society for Paediatric Research and the Society for Pediatric Research.

We have asked a few questions to Dr. Tammy Movsas, principal investigator of this study, to better understand the potential impact of this discovery. Dr. Movsas is the founder and director of Zietchick Research Institute, a small company whose mission is to develop transformative treatments for blinding retinal diseases such as retinopathy of prematurity (also known as ROP).

Q. The Zietchick team has discovered that premature infants produce the pregnancy hormone–hCG–after birth. What is the impact of this discovery in medicine?

A. Several decades ago, the hCG receptor was identified in many fetal organs such as the eye, brain, lung and colon. Because of this, scientists have wondered for a long time whether hCG participates in the development of these organs. However, no one knew for sure whether or not it did. Our discovery that this hormone is produced by preemies greatly increases the likelihood that this hormone plays an important role in human development.  Premature infants, especially those born over 2 months early, are at risk for problems affecting their eyes, brain, intestine and lung.  At this point, we can be hopeful that this discovery (and the work that now needs to be done to determine the role of hCG in development) may help improve the health outcomes of premature infants.

Q. How may this discovery help prevent retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) as well as other disorders linked to prematurity?

A. Many disorders that afflict premature infants involve dysregulation of blood vessel formation – a process that is known as angiogenesis. For example, in ROP, not enough blood vessels form in the early stages of the disease and too many blood vessels form in the late stages of the disease.  It is well known that hCG is involved in helping blood vessels form in the pregnant uterus. Our team, at Zietchick Research Institute, thinks that hCG helps regulate blood vessel formation in many organs (besides the uterus). We feel that this discovery will eventually lead to new treatments to mitigate several infant morbidities linked to prematurity.

Q. What measures are  Zietchick Research Institute  taking to further investigate this newly open field?

A. We are so excited about opening up this new facet of infant endocrinology and we are currently applying for federal and state grants as well as searching for other types of funding to continue our work. To begin with, we plan to establish reference levels of hCG in preterm infants to help us determine whether the normal range of hCG levels during infancy. Then, we plan to look for links between hCG levels and many disorders associated with prematurity.  Ultimately, we will also study whether babies, who are born after a full length pregnancy, also make hCG.  It will be interesting to figure out where the hCG is being produced.  We predict that it is made by either the pituitary or the kidney. 

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