A researcher at Tulane University School of Medicine is part of a new $5 million study to understand how the placenta protects babies from potentially harmful chemicals while still delivering vital nutrients.
Hao Zhu, PhD, Professor at the Division of Biomedical Informatics and Genomics, is leading one of three projects to form the Integrated Transporter Elucidation Center (InTEC) that was just funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The other two projects are led by research teams from Rutgers University and the University of Pennsylvania. Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Rochester are also collaborating on the project.
The goal of InTEC is to understand the mechanisms of placental transporters - specialized proteins that control substances crossing the placenta barrier between mother and fetus. These transporters block many toxic substances but allow nutrients and other beneficial molecules to pass to the developing baby.
Zhu’s group will develop machine learning and data mining techniques to integrate experimental findings from other research teams and public data sources. They will also analyze chemical-transporter interactions to generate predictive models that show how placental transporters handle nutrients, medications, supplements, and environmental chemicals.
“We’ll use machine learning and other AI techniques to help us understand the chemical features, biomarkers, experimental exposures, and other complex factors that will affect individual pregnant women,” Zhu said.
Besides directly using the experimental data from the other two projects in this center, Zhu’s group will also integrate public data resources that provide millions of data points about chemical and biological studies of placental transporters. The resulting database and predictive models in this project will be shared through a web portal being developed by Zhu’s lab with technical support provided by Tulane’s IT department.
“Public data sources are treasures to computational modeling studies of such a complex topic,” Zhu said. “To take advantage of all these existing data in the public domain, new data mining techniques will be developed in this project. We will also share our findings with research communities through a web portal being developed in our group. Researchers worldwide can access and use the predictive models to evaluate chemical placenta safety when the internet is available. I am glad that Tulane School of Medicine will provide strong support for this effort.”
The results will explain how maternal health and chemical exposures influence fetal development. Ultimately, the study aims to optimize medical treatments and public health interventions to improve pregnancy outcomes.