May 1, 2019
Researcher wins top U.S. prize for breakthrough research on placental biology
For most women, pregnancy and birth are a time for joy. But complications in pregnancy can overshadow this period. Moms can experience pre-eclampsia, preterm birth, miscarriage, and even stillbirth. Recent research is shedding light on the critical role of the placenta in contributing to these complications.
For her pioneering research to explain the biology of the placenta, the crucial organ for pregnancy in humans and most other mammals, University of Calgary’s Dr. Myriam Hemberger, PhD, is awarded the U.S. 2019 March of Dimes and Richard B. Johnston, Jr. MD Prize in Developmental Biology. The prize is awarded annually to an outstanding scientist who has profoundly advanced the science that underlies the understanding of prenatal development and pregnancy. Hemberger is a professor in the Cumming School of Medicine’s departments of biochemistry and molecular biology, and medical genetics and a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.
“I am very honoured and humbled to receive this award. This prize speaks to the overall commitment by communities to better understand maternal health and advance improvements in child health outcomes,” says Hemberger.
A world leader in the study of placental development, Hemberger has made exceptional contributions to the understanding of the epigenetic gene regulation that leads to successful formation of a placenta in the uterus. Her 2018 paper in Nature on the prevalence of placental defects in embryos with severe developmental defects was a game changer for the field, as it highlighted the potential contribution of the placenta to malformations of the fetus in a far greater proportion of cases than previously thought.
March of Dimes
As part of this work, Hemberger and her colleagues also have done groundbreaking research that uncovered a close connection between placental defects and congenital heart disease, for which they won the inaugural Magee Prize from the Richard K. Mellon Foundation in 2018.
“Dr. Hemberger has made amazing advances in our understanding of pregnancy complications and developmental defects,” says Dr. Kelle H. Moley, MD, senior vice-president and chief scientific officer for March of Dimes. “We are excited to honour her with our top prize in research. Hemberger’s work to explain events that take place early in development, including the heart-placenta connection, will make it possible in the future for improved diagnosis and treatment for healthier moms and babies.”
Hemberger delivered the 24th annual March of Dimes Prize Lecture on April 29 at the Baltimore Convention Center during the 2019 Pediatric Academy Societies annual meeting. She received the prize and a silver medal in the design of the Roosevelt dime, in honour of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who founded March of Dimes in 1938 to help children at that time stricken with polio. In 1995, the March of Dimes created this prize as a tribute to scientist Dr. Jonas Salk.
Hemberger was recruited to UCalgary in September of 2018 from the University of Cambridge, U.K. She has been a group leader in the epigenetics programme at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge, U.K. and a core member of the Centre for Trophoblast Research at the University of Cambridge.