Reproductive and Vascular Immunology
Have you ever wondered why a mother’s immune system does not reject a fetus, the same way it might reject a transplanted organ? This is a crucial question that Dr. Loewendorf and her laboratory are trying to answer. Her program of reproductive and vascular immunology is trying to understand how the immune system of the mother achieves maternal to fetal tolerance. There are some situations where this immune tolerance to the fetus does not work; and one appears to be in the pregnancy disorder called preeclampsia, a condition where the mother’s blood pressure may elevate to dangerously high levels. While the exact cause of this condition is still under investigation, Dr. Loewendorf’s group suggests that an impaired immune response may be involved. If the exact problem with the immune system can be determined, then better therapies for preeclampsia may be developed.
Another area of research being pursued by Dr. Loewendorf’s research group is to determine the mechanisms by which the immune system impacts the health of blood vessels in normal aging as well as in various disease states. Those women who have altered immune systems and develop preeclampsia may be at increased risk for the later development of vascular disease, including heart attack and stroke. The disease patterns of heart attack and stroke in these women differ from the classical pathology of clogged blood vessels, observed in most of the population. Instead, these women who had histories of preeclampsia may manifest their vascular disease primarily as an inability of their blood vessels to dilate; that is, their blood vessels are stiff and cannot respond to the need for increased blood flow when the oxygen demand of the heart or brain increases. Dr. Loewendorf is investigating how inflammation during and after preeclampsia may contribute to these vascular abnormalities and will be investigating potential therapies. For this project, Dr. Loewendorf and Dr. King are collaborating to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the state of the vasculature (using Magnetic Resonance to image the brain and vasculature) and are studying the immune system and inflammation (by studying samples of blood) from the same volunteers.