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Making strides in reproductive science

By Andrew Stokes, Communications Officer

Taking to the main stage in front of a crowd of nearly 1000 faces, Matthew Rätsep was awash with nerves. Presenting his research to the 47th Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Reproduction, he faced his colleagues and peers in a Michigan conference centre that had previously played host to the likes of Michael Bublé and Beck.

PhD candidate Matthew Rätsep is researching the effects of the pregnancy disorder pre-eclampsia.

His work focused on Placental Growth Factor (PGF), a protein found in the placenta during pregnancy. "Since its discovery in the late 1990s, PGF has been a hot topic in the field of reproductive science," says Mr. Rätsep, a PhD candidate in the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences. "There's a known link between low levels of PGF and pre-eclampsia, but I wanted to find out if this was a consequence or a cause of the pre-eclampsia."

Pre-eclampsia, a disorder characterized by high blood pressure in pregnancy affects around three per cent of pregnancies. It can lead to kidney dysfunction, impaired liver function as well as cognitive impairments in the mother.

From the 600 submissions to the conference, Mr. Rätsep had his work selected as one of the top six. That also earned him a Lalor Foundation Travel Fellowship for the research'™s scientific merit, clarity and the impact of its results. Along with the other top six, he was invited to participate in the Trainee Research Platform Competition, and so he found himself on a wide stage, flanked by two enormous video screens as he presented his findings to the conference-goers. After the deliberation of the judges, Mr. Rätsep was awarded the conference's top prize. He says the prize money from the award will be put to use financing further conferences and research, the next phase of which has already begun.

"œWe began trying to take blood pressure measurements, but that quickly took us in a different direction," Mr. Rätsep says. "œIt appears that some offspring of pre-eclamptic mothers are born with imperfect blood vessel formation in their brain and so we've begun a pilot study of children of pre-eclamptic mothers to substantiate this."

Children born from pre-eclamptic mothers are possibly at risk of cognitive impairment. "The children are still able to lead reasonably healthy lives but they might be at a greater risk for depression," he says. "œMostly they'™ll just need a little more care and attention."

[UPDATE] Mr. Rätsep presented at the International Federation of Placenta Associations (IFPA) in Paris, France early in September 2014. Of the 164 poster presentations by new investigators at the conference, Mr. Rätsep's was singled out as the best presentation based on scientific merit, interpretation, the impact of the results and the clarity of the presentation. As a result, he was presented with the Elsevier Trophoblast Research New Investigator Award and invited to present a plenary lecture at next year's IFPA conference in Brisbane, Australia.