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Environmental Factor – January 20, 2022: Maternal Health, Diverse Research Approach Developed by NIEHS Scientist
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Environmental Factor – January 20, 2022: Maternal Health, Diverse Research Approach Developed by NIEHS Scientist

Benedict Anchang, Ph.D.
Benedict Anchang, Ph.D.Anchang will create tools that can be used to analyze how genes, disease, age, ethnicity and cultural activities impact placental development in Nigerian mothers during pregnancy. (Photo courtesy Steve McCaw/NIEHS)

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative(CZI) awarded $820,000 to the organization recently Benedict Anchang, Ph.D.Stadtman Investigator in NIEHS Biostatistics and Computational Biology Branch to create the first map of placental cell types from African women. This project will shed light upon gene expression patterns during pregnancy, and possibly reveal how environmental and sociological factors can impact maternal health.

Anchang is among 16 CZI grantees who have expanded the ancestral variety of tissue samples in the Human Cell AtlasThe International Initiative to Map All Human Cells, an international effort to map all human cells. The goal of the project is to provide a solid biological reference point for researchers that allows them to make breakthroughs in disease treatment, even for those previously understudied.

CZI, a philanthropic foundation, invests in scientific research and education as well as community programs. It was formed in the Ancestry Networks for the Human Cell AtlasAnchang will use this platform to study placentas of ancestrally diverse Nigerian donors from seven tribes.

“We should be able to generate a reference reproductive and perinatal developmental cell map to learn how environmental and socioeconomic factors may affect pregnancy,” said Anchang.

His co-investigators are former NIEHS visiting fellows Musa Kana (M.D., PhD.Kaduna State University in Nigeria. Former National Institutes of Health (NIH), fellow Idowu Imola. Ph.D. from Ahmadu Bello University. Both Kana, and Aimola were part of the African Postdoctoral training Initiative (see Sidebar).

Musa Kana, M.D., Ph.D.Kana (tan jacket) is seen here listening intently during NIEHS’ 2020 lecture on early-life factors of psychiatric disorders. (Photo courtesy Steve McCaw/NIEHS)

Mapping diversity

“This study will provide much-needed reference data on gene expression patterns in African women during pregnancy,” said Alison Motsinger-Reif, Ph.D., Chief of the NIEHS Biostatistics and Computational Biology Branch.

“Non-European populations are vastly underrepresented in genomic databases,” she said. “This is problematic because it may miss gene-disease relationships for which a given exposure or outcome is rare in European populations. Also, it limits the evidence base for translating these findings into clinical care in diverse populations.”

Researchers involved in this project will investigate how genetic ancestry impacts health and disease at the single cell level. They will also generate reference data from historically understudied populations like Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous.

Mark Zuckerberg, left, and his wife Priscilla Chan, rightMark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan are cofounders and coCEOs of Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. (Photo courtesy: CZI

“To create effective treatments and cures for all people, the biomedical community must work to increase representation in scientific research,” said Norbert Tavares, Ph.D., program manager for the Single-cell Biology program at CZI.

Anchang, who is a joint member of the National Cancer Institute, said that single-cell approaches have revolutionized research into biological systems.

Improving maternal health

Anchang stated that Nigerian mothers are 500 times more likely than women in advanced countries to die in childbirth. Anchang said that any deviation in the maternal or foetus cells can lead to high-risk maternal disorders.

“Disparity in these outcomes is driven by ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic factors, especially in the northern and north-central regions of Nigeria,” Anchang explained.

His team will identify key characteristics of the major cell types in the maternal blood and placental system and examine the dynamic interplay between those cells during pregnancy.

“By profiling the expression of spatial regions of the placenta, we will be able to assess the cellular effects of environmental and socioeconomic factors during normal and abnormal pregnancy across different global ethnic groups,” Anchang said.

He noted that computer-based tools are being developed to analyze the long- and short-term effects of environmental factors on pregnancy.

Learn more about all the projectsCZI AncestryNetworks for the Human Cell Atlas. The 2021 National Diversity in STEM Conference was hosted at the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.

(Jennifer Harker is a Ph.D. technical writer-editor at the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.

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