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November 2009 Issue
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Immune cell pregnancy link a winner

 Health Sciences

A University of Adelaide PhD student has won a $10,000 prize for shedding new light on why some women are infertile and why some pregnancies end in miscarriage.

Alison Care has been named the 2009 winner of the prestigious Young Investigator Award.

Her research has examined the role of a type of immune cells known as macrophages (white blood cells) within the ovary, which are found in abundance around developing eggs and in hormone-producing structures within the ovary.

The study, conducted in mice, shows that when these white blood cells are depleted there is a significant reduction in the amount of progesterone the ovary produces. Progesterone is a hormone produced by the ovary that is essential for the maintenance of early pregnancy.

"We know that the ovary requires a vascular network in order to deliver the high levels of progesterone the body requires to maintain early pregnancy. The formation of this network occurs very quickly following ovulation, and macrophages may be involved in establishing that blood supply," Ms Care said.

"It appears that the ovary has its own specialist pathway to achieve this, and that macrophages have an essential role in building the blood supply that we hadn't previously appreciated.

"This research identifies immune system cells as critical determinants of normal ovarian activity and the maintenance of early pregnancy. This might be a key to helping prevent early pregnancy loss, such as recurrent miscarriage."

Ms Care said a number of factors - such as smoking, obesity, poor nutrition and stress - could all alter the way macrophages behave and may provide reasons for infertility or miscarriage in some women.

Alison Care is a PhD student in the University of Adelaide's Discipline of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, in the Research Centre for Reproductive Health, Robinson Institute.

She won the Young Investigator Award after presenting her research to a general audience and a panel of media judges.

As the winner, she received The Hon. Carolyn Pickles Award of $10,000. Prizes of $3000 each were awarded to the two runners up, Kathryn Gebhardt (also from the Discipline of Obstetrics & Gynaecology) and Roger Yazbek (Department of Gastroenterology, Children, Youth and Women's Health Service).

Ms Care is supervised by Associate Professor Sarah Robertson, Dr Melinda Jasper and Dr Wendy Ingman.

The Young Investigator Award, now in its 10th year, is a highly successful event rewarding excellence in South Australia's young researchers in both science and their ability to communicate and 'sell' that science. The award is an initiative of the Children, Youth and Women's Health Service and the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Adelaide.

The University of South Australia and Flinders University are also partners in the award together with the Women's and Children's Health Research Institute, the Royal Institution of Australia, Medvet and the Women's and Children's Hospital Foundation.

Story by Charmaine Newton and David Ellis

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Young Investigator Award winner Alison Care Photo by Kelly Barnes, courtesy of <i>The Australian</i>

Young Investigator Award winner Alison Care Photo by Kelly Barnes, courtesy of The Australian
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