Ability to keep a fetus separate from the mother’s own tissue has ramifications for cancer research.

March 27, 2024

3 Min Read
National Pork Board

By Courtney Price, Texas A&M University School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences

For the next three to five years, the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences will partner with one of the top evolutionary biologists in the world who is researching whether swine reproduction holds the key to the next wave of cancer research.

Hagler Fellow Dr. Günter Wagner, the Alison Richard Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University, is renowned for his work on the evolution of genes and gene regulatory networks. His current research focuses on comparative reproductive biology.

“Because of the way that some farm animals reproduce, cancer doesn’t spread as quickly through their bodies like it can in humans,” Wagner said. “We are hopeful that studying their reproductive biology will lead to new treatments for both people and animals.”

Leading the way

For Wagner, who will be partnering with both the VMBS and Texas A&M AgriLife, the Hagler fellowship is an opportunity to study farm animals, like pigs, up close, since pigs are more accessible at Texas A&M than in other research universities.

“Texas A&M is also one of the main centers of non-biomedical reproductive biology,” Wagner said. “I’m a zoologist by training, but I’ve been focusing on comparative reproductive biology only for the last 10 to 15 years. These farm animals that I study now are very interesting because they have an unusual form of female reproduction that is quite different from mice and humans.

“As we understand it now, the kind of placenta that humans have — where the baby is deeply invasive into the tissue of the mother — is considered a more primitive form of reproduction,” he said. “In contrast, many farm animals have a non-invasive placenta, which means that the fetus is inside the mother’s body, but its tissues and fluids are less deeply intertwined with hers.”

The ability to keep a fetus separate from the mother’s own tissue has surprising ramifications for cancer research.

“What I found in my lab and with the help of collaborators is that animals that have less-invasive placenta are also less vulnerable to cancer spread,” Wagner said. “They get cancer, but it stays local most of the time. Understanding how that is possible is potentially important for treating cancer in humans and other animals.”

Making connections

The Hagler Institute was founded to drive collaboration between the world’s top researchers and enrich the intellectual climate at Texas A&M.

Getting to collaborate with important researchers in his field was one of the major draws for Wagner, who will be working alongside Dr. Gregory Johnson, a professor in the VMBS’ Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences, and Dr. Fuller Bazer, a distinguished professor in the Texas A&M Department of Animal Sciences.

“Dr. Bazer was the one who figured out the recognition of pregnancy mechanisms for farm animals — for example, how the body of the mother knows that she’s pregnant and changes her physiology appropriately to support the growth of the fetus,” Wagner said. “Dr. Johnson is also a leading researcher in reproductive biology, especially in pigs and sheep.

“It is exciting to have the opportunity to work with so many outstanding experts important to my area of interest in one place,” he said.

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