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Researchers Learn that Pregnant Women Pass Along Protective COVID Antibodies to their Babies

Antibodies that guard against COVID-19 can transfer from mothers to babies while in the womb, according to a new study from Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian researchers published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

This discovery, published Jan. 22, adds to growing evidence that suggests that pregnant women who generate protective antibodies after contracting the coronavirus often convey some of that natural immunity to their fetuses. The findings also lend support to the idea that vaccinating mothers-to-be may also have benefits for their newborns.  

Yawei (Jenny) Yang, MD, PhD
Assistant Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine

“Since we can now say that the antibodies pregnant women make against COVID-19 have been shown to be passed down to their babies, we suspect that there’s a good chance they could pass down the antibodies the body makes after being vaccinated as well,” said Dr. Yawei Jenny Yang, an assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and the study’s senior author.

Dr. Yang and her team analyzed blood samples from 88 women who gave birth at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center between March and May 2020, a time when New York City was the global epicenter of the pandemic. All of the women had COVID-19 antibodies in their blood, indicating that they had contracted the virus at some point even though 58 percent of those women had no symptoms. Furthermore, while antibodies were detected in both symptomatic and asymptomatic women, the researchers observed that the concentration of antibodies was significantly higher in symptomatic women. They also found that the general pattern of antibody response was similar to the response seen in other patients, confirming that pregnant women have the same kind of immune response to the virus as the larger patient population—something that hadn’t previously been known for sure, since a woman’s immune system changes throughout pregnancy.

In addition, the vast majority of the babies born to these women—78 percent—had detectable antibodies in their umbilical cord blood. There was no evidence that any of the infants had been directly infected with the virus and all were COVID negative at the time of birth, further indicating that the antibodies had crossed the placenta—the organ that provides oxygen and nutrients to a growing baby during pregnancy—into the fetal bloodstream. Newborns with symptomatic mothers also had higher antibody levels than those whose mothers had no COVID symptoms.

Study Reveals How a Longevity Gene Protects Brain Stem Cells From Stress

A gene linked to unusually long lifespans in humans protects brain stem cells from the harmful effects of stress, according to a new study by Weill Cornell Medicine investigators.

Studies of humans who live longer than 100 years have shown that many share an unusual version of a gene called Forkhead box protein O3 (FOXO3). That discovery led Dr. Jihye Paik, associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, and her colleagues to investigate how this gene contributes to brain health during aging.

Jihye Paik, PhD
Associate Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine

In 2018, Dr. Paik and her team showed that mice who lack the FOXO3 gene in their brain are unable to cope with stressful conditions in the brain, which leads to the progressive death of brain cells. Their new study, published Jan. 28 in Nature Communications, reveals that FOXO3 preserves the brain’s ability to regenerate by preventing stem cells from dividing until the environment will support the new cells’ survival.

“Stem cells produce new brain cells, which are essential for learning and memory throughout our adult lives,” said Dr. Paik, who is also a member of the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. “If stem cells divide without control, they get depleted. The FOXO3 gene appears to do its job by stopping the stem cells from dividing until after the stress has passed.”

Many challenges like inflammation, radiation or a lack of adequate nutrients can stress the brain. But Dr. Paik and her colleagues looked specifically what happens when brain stem cells are exposed to oxidative stress, which occurs when harmful types of oxygen build up in the body.

“We learned that the FOXO3 protein is directly modified by oxidative stress,” she said. This modification sends the protein into the nucleus of the stem cell where it turns on stress response genes.

The resulting stress response leads to the depletion of a nutrient called s-adenosylmethionine (SAM). This nutrient is needed to help a protein called lamin form a protective envelope around the DNA in the nucleus of the stem cell.

“Without SAM, lamin can’t form this strong barrier and DNA starts leaking out,” she said.

Dr. Steven Josefowicz Awarded Starr Cancer Consortium Grant

The Starr Cancer Consortium has awarded grant funding to three Weill Cornell Medicine-led multi-institution teams to advance their groundbreaking cancer research projects. The grants will support studies on mechanisms that drive lymphoma and urothelial cancers, and the effects of radiation therapy.

Steven Josefowicz, PhD
Assistant Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine

Established by the Starr Foundation in 2006, the Starr Cancer Consortium is a collaboration among five leading research institutions: The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, The Rockefeller University and Weill Cornell Medicine.

Each year, investigators from these institutions propose new strategies to improve the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and fundamental understanding of cancer. A review board of scientists from institutions outside the consortium selects the best of these proposals for funding, with an emphasis on identifying ambitious projects that have the potential to transform the field. This year, the winners include projects led by Drs. Lewis CantleyBishoy Faltas and Steven Josefowicz of Weill Cornell Medicine.

"Weill Cornell Medicine investigators have excelled once again in receiving grant funding from The Starr Foundation's annual competition, with members of our faculty leading three of the 10 funded projects," said Dr. Hugh Hemmings, senior associate dean for research and chair of the Department of Anesthesiology. "The generous support of the foundation enables these talented investigators to pursue innovative and collaborative approaches to tackle some of the toughest problems in cancer research."

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