Oregon researchers discover way that could detect ectopic pregnancies

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — Breakthrough medical research shows nanotechnology could be used to better detect and treat ectopic pregnancies, according to researchers from Oregon Health & Science University and Oregon State University.

An ectopic pregnancy is a pregnancy in which the fertilized egg grows outside of the uterus. It’s often painful and can be dangerous.

Dr. Leslie Myatt, OHSU professor of obstetrics and gynecology and director of perinatal research, said up to 100,000 pregnancies per year in the United State are estimated to be ectopic pregnancies.

Myatt said ectopic pregnancies’ are currently tough to diagnose and tough to treat, and this new research may provide a better way forward.

“Research is 99% frustration, 1% pure elation,” Myatt said, adding that he’s referencing Thomas Edison. “This was definitely one of those moments of pure elation, that’s for sure.”

Myatt said he learned about the nanotechnology research of Dr. Olena Taratula, an Oregon State University research associate professor, and asked if they could work together.

“[To] design some kind of nanoparticles and we can use them for ectopic pregnancy diagnosis and treatment,” Taratula said.

The hypothesis was — those nanoparticles would attach themselves to the placenta, and then doctors could scan to see where the egg is growing. If it’s growing outside the uterus, that’s evidence of a dangerous ectopic pregnancy.

Researchers tested their hypothesis on mice — and it worked.

“We were all over the moon, particularly when we did the first imaging experiments where we had injected the nanoparticle and saw it would then localize to the placenta and it lights up like little lightbulbs,” Myatt said. “It was like whoa, this is absolutely amazing.”

Taratula shared his enthusiasm.

“You want to tell everyone, start texting your friends, see what I’ve done,” she said. “Even friends who don’t understand anything about this, hey it’s working!”

However, the research didn’t stop there.

Myatt, Taratula and others discovered they could heat up the nanoparticles to break down the placenta — a seemingly effective treatment that’s noninvasive and not painful.

“Secondarily, when we went on to treat with the infrared light and cause the disruption of the tissue it was like whoa, we’re really onto something here,” Myatt said. “So yeah, we were very excited by it.”

Myatt said the current cancer drug used to treat ectopic pregnancies has serious side effects and fails about 10% of the time.

So this technology could both better detect and treat a serious condition which affects between 1 and 2% of pregnancies each year in the United States.

“If your technology comes through and helps, and it’s simple and efficient, that’s a goal, that’s a dream I guess,” Taratula said.

The researchers are now conducting safety studies to show the nanoparticles are non-toxic and don’t affect future fertility.

They also discovered that the heating of the nanoparticles does not cross the placenta to affect the fetus — encouraging news as it reduces danger in the case of a viable pregnancy

Next, they plan to test the research on non-human primates. This research will take several years, Myatt said, and they’re applying for additional grant funding.

“We’re excited by it, we’re pressing ahead with future studies, and hopefully in the future, potentially, this could be a treatment we could offer to people,” Myatt said.

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