Studying Health in the First Moments of Life

Sep 16, 2014
Heidi Singer
 Fellows with Mats Sundin

Thanks to a unique exchange between U of T and Sweden’s Karolinska Institute made possible by former Toronto Maple Leafs Captain Mats Sundin, two young researchers are helping to advance fetal health in important new ways.

Jessica Weidner is crossing continents —from Stockholm to Scarborough — in her quest to understand how the Toxoplasma gondii, known as the kitty litter parasite, is able to pass through the placenta and infect an unborn child. And U of T’s Sophie Petropoulos is stationed at two of Karolinska’s labs, where she is working at the single cell level to help understand the mysteries of the first seven days of human development.

“In research, you often find yourself so focused on a particular protein, or immersed in one technique,” Weidner says. “This collaboration has helped breathe new life into my project.”

In her study of Toxoplasma gondii, Weidner travels from Sweden frequently to the U of T Scarborough lab of Professor Rene Harrison, whose team has extensive expertise in advanced microscopy techniques that shed light on how Toxoplasma affects immune cells. The parasite is particularly common to cats, and can cause serious harm to fetuses and infants.

Her next step: to begin studying exactly how the parasite crosses into the placenta.

The postdoctoral fellowships are made possible by the 2013 Mats Sundin Fellowship in Developmental Health, which supports the exchange between the two leading universities. The former National Hockey League and Team Sweden superstar worked with other donors to launch the fellowship, which provides advanced postdoctoral training for up to two years in human development.
“I have access to state-of-the-art technology which is enabling me to determine important mechanisms that regulate human development,” says Petropoulos, who is seven months into her two-year Swedish stint. “My experience at KI has been nothing short of incredible and I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity.” 

Petropoulos, who is co-supervised by Rickard Sandberg and Fredrik Lanner of the Karolinska Institute, has determined the gene expression of the human embryo at a single-cell level during the first seven days, which is fundamentally important in understanding human development and improving stem cell research.  She is also exploring non-genetic effects on the human embryo and has evidence that a type of stress hormone could be altering the embryo’s gene expression at this incredibly early stage.

The results, she said, could have implications for future IVF treatments and for ensuring optimal fetal health outcomes.


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