Over 300,000 neonates worldwide die in their first month of life due to a congenital birth defect. Thanks to advancements in diagnostic technology and imaging, the field of fetal surgery was developed to treat some of these conditions in utero. Results have demonstrated improved short and long-term outcomes following surgery, especially for those fetuses diagnosed with congenital diaphragmatic hernia, lower urinary tract obstruction and spina bifida. However, over 30% of the surgical cases will have preterm labor, leading to complications related to neonatal prematurity. The cause of this surgery-induced preterm birth is unknown; however, disruption in fetal-maternal tolerance may lead to immune activation and inflammation of the maternal and fetal immune systems. Maintaining immunologic tolerance is essential during pregnancy, as a women shares only half of her genetic material with the fetus. Previous work has demonstrated that fetal surgery leads to an increase in maternal cells identified in cord blood. Animal studies have also shown that in utero intervention leads to the activation of maternal cells against fetal (paternal) antigen. Based on this previous data, we hypothesize that surgical trauma following in utero intervention results in mixing of maternal and fetal cells leading to activation of systemic (adaptive maternal immunity) and regional (fetal placental macrophages) immune responses that disrupt fetal-maternal tolerance, which can result in preterm birth. These hypotheses will be addressed in the experiments of the following Specific Aims: 1) to determine whether maternal T cells specific to fetal antigen are activated and expand after in utero intervention; and 2) to determine whether placental macrophages (Hofbauer Cells) and histology in the maternal-fetal interface exhibit increased activation and inflammation in surgical cases born preterm (<37 weeks) compared to term. Should this exploratory study reveal activation of maternal and/or fetal immune responses following in utero surgery, modalities aimed at therapeutically suppressing these acute responses may prolong gestation, significantly benefiting newborns diagnosed with a congenital anomaly.
Preforming surgery in utero on babies with certain birth defects has led to significant improvements in outcomes after birth; however, many of these babies are born preterm which can decrease the effectiveness of these procedures. In our study, we aim to understand the effects of surgery on the maternal and fetal immune system and whether immune activation may be causing some of these babies to be born prematurely. Understanding this process may lead to effective therapeutic strategies that modulate the immune system and prevent preterm birth following in utero surgery.