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Drs. Mary Wallingford and Elizabeth Yen Receive WiMS Mentorship Seed Awards

Two MIRI PIs have each been awarded a 2021 Mentorship Seed Award by the Tufts Medical Center Women in Medicine and Science (WiMS) Committee.  The current chair of WiMS is incoming MIRI Interim Executive Director Dr. Perrie O’Tierney-Ginn.

Dr. Wallingford received her award for a project by her mentee Tufts University medical school student Vineetha Matthew entitled, “Characterization of HHT in the Human Placenta.” 

The research in the Wallingford lab focuses primarily on the vascular biology of pregnancy, in particular the placenta, a transient organ crucial in sustaining fetal development by proper nutrient, gas, and waste exchange between maternal and fetal circulations. The objective of Vineetha’s project is to investigate the mechanisms by which hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia (HHT) interacts with placental vascular development and remodeling during pregnancy. HHT is an autosomal dominant disease distinguished by malformed blood vessels, and HHT pregnancies are considered high risk due to the increased risk for maternal morbidity and mortality. HHT-associated genes, Eng, Smad4, Alk1, and Bmp9, have been shown to play important roles in promoting vascular health, however the mechanism by which this occurs remains poorly understood. Recent preliminary data from the Wallingford lab support the hypothesis that deficiencies in HHT genes in mice result in disruption of the placental vascular structure, and proteomic analyses show that the gap junction protein CX43 is regulated by HHT genes. In this study we aim to investigate whether loss of normal TGF- β signaling in HHT leads to the disruption of placental endothelial gap junctions specifically by using histological analysis to analyze co-expression and localization patterns of HHT genes and the gap junctions CX41 and CX43. These results will further the understanding of HHT in pregnancy and provide a basis for future translational studies in determining whether gap junction agonists can be used as potential novel candidate therapeutic targets for HHT. 

The WiMS Mentorship Seed award for Dr. Yen was for a project of her mentee Jean Kwon, a second year medical student at Tufts University. Dr. Yen’s laboratory research focuses on non-invasive salivary gene expression and brain imaging data to elucidate sex-differential roles of the prenatal opioids on the brain, particularly the hypothalamus and reward centers that regulate feeding behavior in infants with NAS. Jean’s project, entitled “Quantitative Data Assessment on Early Intervention Referral for Infants with Prenatal Opioid Exposure,” aims to improve the Early Intervention (EI) referral rate for infants with prenatal opioid exposure born/admitted at Tufts Children’s Hospital (TCH). Given the long-term adverse neurodevelopmental risks, opioid-exposed newborns are automatically eligible for EI services offered through the Massachusetts Department of Health (MA DPH) at no cost. Yet only 60% of these newborns received EI referrals, likely due to lack of engagement and education on this important topic, among other factors. Of those referred, only 25% were enrolled by 6 months of age, evidence that there is a great need to engage families and optimize the referral process for these newborns. This project aims to 1) improve the EI referral process by identifying hospital personnel to champion the referral process and advocate for post-discharge EI services; and 2) develop a user-friendly pamphlet and utilize statewide EI resources, e.g., a short video, to connect families with the EI services prior to their discharge from the hospital. Through an ongoing collaboration with the MA DPH, we will also provide ongoing education to the entire clinical team to foster the EI referral process at TCH.

MIRI congratulates the PI recipients of these awards and their mentees, the next generation of researchers being guided by their mentors in developing their science.