June 1, 2021

Women’s Health Research Spotlight: Meghan Riddell

Photo: William Au

Meghan Riddell is interested in understanding the biological pathways that drive the development of the placenta, and the complications that cause major pregnancy difficulties. Meghan, an assistant professor in the Departments of Obstetrics & Gynaecology and Physiology, is growing placentas in a dish—contributing to a greater understanding of pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia and intrauterine growth restriction.

What does your program of research examine?

I focus on how the human placenta forms and functions, and what can go wrong. Abnormal placenta development can lead to pregnancy complications like intrauterine growth restriction, which is when babies are born much too small, and preeclampsia, which may threaten the health of the mother and baby. These two common pregnancy complications are a result of a failure of the placenta to form and function properly. 

Another aspect of my research program is looking at how the uterus prepares for pregnancy and adapts to early pregnancy at the level of the blood vessels in the uterus. These blood vessels are very unique; they are sensitive to the hormones that regulate pregnancy and they are different from the blood vessels in the rest of the body.

Why is placental research important? How will learning more about the placenta improve the health of women and children?

My mantra is, “The placenta is, quite simply, the most important organ you no longer have.” Nobody would be here without a properly formed and functioning placenta. 

A major cause of spontaneous miscarriage is when the placenta is not formed properly. There are many different complications in pregnancy that result directly from poorly formed and functioning placentas. We know, from a great deal of research now, that if you are born from a pregnancy that’s complicated that you have an increased risk of health complications like cardiovascular disease later in life. That is just from the perspective of the baby that is born from that pregnancy. 

Additionally, we also know that mothers who have experienced complicated pregnancies also have altered health trajectories and it is not usually for the better. The placenta is this key. It is the interface between the mom and the baby and it is where a lot of these problems occur. By understanding how the placenta forms and functions in normal conditions, and then being able to understand what goes wrong, we will be able to identify therapeutic opportunities for the treatment of these pregnancy complications. Ultimately, we will be able to help the entire population be healthier, because the health of the placenta affects everyone, and everybody has a risk.

You’ve been growing placentas in a dish since coming back to the U of A after your postdoc in Germany. Where are you with your research?

We have really moved along in this project despite COVID-19 disruptions, and they are forming and growing! We are approaching the final stages of validating these placentas to make sure that they are very representative of proper human tissue at the molecular level. Thus far, they are a better representation than other existing protocols. We are very hopeful and it’s very exciting!

How has the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation contributed to your body of research?

They have been involved since the moment I opened my lab, by providing some of my startup funding and also matching this specific grant for growing the placentas in a dish. The Alberta Women’s Health Foundation provided the seed money to allow for my entire research program to start. Their original investment has enabled us to develop and reach out to other grant agencies to continue to grow our program. Their contribution has meant that we have been able to get a really great start in a very competitive field. 

I really think that this is a huge advantage of being in Alberta because there are very few organizations that support the basic fundamental research in this area; it is critical for all of the future discoveries that are going to need support. 

Why do you think it’s important to invest in pregnancy research? 

By investing in pregnancy research you’re impacting the health of everyone. If you have an unhealthy mother and you have an unhealthy in utero environment, everyone’s health trajectories are altered. It’s absolutely important for people to realize that pregnancy research is critical.

Riddell is one of the newest perinatal researchers recruited to the University of Alberta by WCHRI, with funding from the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation.