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Local biomedical researchers win top prize from the National Academy of Sciences

About five and a half years ago, when virologist Carolyn Coyne, an associate professor at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, was expecting her son, among the many questions she had about pregnancy was how viruses would treat her body and the body of her baby. Her curiosity has led to an award-winning paper about how the placenta has evolved to protect a fetus from viral infection.

Human placental trophoblasts confer viral resistance to recipient cells was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July of last year, and in April, Coyne, along with her co-author, Dr. Yoel Sadovsky, an obstetrician/gynecologist and director of the Magee-Womens Research Insitute, will travel to Washington, D.C. to receive the Cozzarelli Prize for top biomedical sciences paper published in the journal in 2013.

The Cozzarelli prize was established in 2005 and is rewarded to papers that reflect originality and scientific excellence.
Coyne and Sadovsky’s paper showed that the placenta can prevent viruses from passing from a pregnant woman to her fetus and that this resistance can be transferred to other, non-placenta cells.

“In a general sense, we’ve identified at least one of the mechanisms that we think the human placenta has evolved to limit viral infections,” Coyne says.

The mechanism is a micro RNA that can be found in the circulation of pregnant woman. Harnessing the power of that small RNA could, in theory, help develop therapies for viruses contracted both during and outside of pregnancy. 

Sadovsky says that despite extensive study of the placenta, which is the interface between a mother and fetus, there have been very little data to illuminate the significance of viruses during pregnancy.

“This became a very intriguing collaboration to use the power of virology, obstetrics and gynecology,” says Sadovsky.

The pair are honored to have won the Cozzarelli Prize for their hard work.

Says Coyne: “We are very proud of our research paper and are gratified that the scientific community deems our work noteworthy.”

Author: Erin Keane Scott
Sources: Anita Srikameswaran, Dr. Yoel Sadovsky and Carolyn Coyne, Ph.D
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