Current means of prenatal diagnosis and screening involve three different types of assays: measurements of serum proteins, fetal imaging through sonography, and chromosome analysis. In this application we propose to add a new dimension to fetal evaluation by developing an understanding of cell-free nucleic acids as novel biomarkers of normal and abnormal fetal functional development at different gestational ages. Over the past four years this field has expanded exponentially, encompassing evaluation of fetal and placental DNA and mRNA in maternal blood, amniotic fluid, cerebrospinal fluid, and urine. Recently, noninvasive diagnosis of fetal Rhesus D status, using cell-free fetal DNA in maternal blood, has made the transition from bench to bedside. We now propose new studies that will build upon the achievements in project years 1-4.
In aim 1 we will test the hypothesis that cell-free DNA (total and fetal) has biological significance and clinical applications during pregnancy. We will examine the clinical utility of fetal gender detection in X-linked conditions, in fetuses at risk for congenital adrenal hyperplasia, and in fetuses with ambiguous genitalia. We will also examine the significance of levels of total cell-free DNA as a noninvasive marker of tissue hypoxia and inflammation.
In aim 2 we will test the hypothesis that normal and abnormal fetal gene expression can be distinguished from each other using cell-free mRNA in maternal body fluids such as whole blood and amniotic fluid. Our goal is to develop a panel of key genes that distinguish between normal and abnormal fetuses, which will permit development of custom microarrays for specific prenatal diagnostic applications.
In aim 3 we will determine whether one can use genomic approaches to better understand fetal development. Using existing software packages we will analyze the lists of differentially-regulated genes acquired in aim 2 to examine where and when specific fetal genes are expressed. We will identify key biological pathways that are involved in normal and abnormal fetal development, and are affected by fetal treatment procedures. We will also use new genomic approaches, such as network analyses, to understand complex biological relationships. Successful completion of the proposed experimental plan will significantly expand the current scope of prenatal diagnosis beyond anatomy, aneuploidy, and single gene disorder detection. Genomic analysis will lead to new insights into the pathophysiology of fetal chromosomal and anatomic abnormalities, which will ultimately lead to rational and entirely novel approaches to fetal therapy. Project Narrative The overall goal of this translational project is to develop an understanding of cell-free nucleic acids as novel biomarkers of fetal development. Successful completion of the proposed work will significantly expand the current scope of prenatal diagnosis, resulting in tests that can find abnormalities in fetal gene expression. Genomic analysis in the proposed aims will lead to novel insights regarding fetal biological processes, which will result in entirely new approaches to fetal therapy.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Research Project (R01)
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Pregnancy and Neonatology Study Section (PN)
Program Officer
Urv, Tiina K
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Tufts University
United States
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Zwemer, Lillian M; Nolin, Sarah L; Okamoto, Patricia M et al. (2017) Global transcriptome dysregulation in second trimester fetuses with FMR1 expansions. Prenat Diagn 37:43-52
Guedj, Faycal; Pennings, Jeroen LA; Massingham, Lauren J et al. (2016) An Integrated Human/Murine Transcriptome and Pathway Approach To Identify Prenatal Treatments For Down Syndrome. Sci Rep 6:32353
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Taglauer, E S; Wilkins-Haug, L; Bianchi, D W (2014) Review: cell-free fetal DNA in the maternal circulation as an indication of placental health and disease. Placenta 35 Suppl:S64-8
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Edlow, Andrea G; Vora, Neeta L; Hui, Lisa et al. (2014) Maternal obesity affects fetal neurodevelopmental and metabolic gene expression: a pilot study. PLoS One 9:e88661

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