Carolyn Coyne’s Most Beautiful Barrier

Carolyn CoyneBy Lindsay Key

The placenta—the organ that protects developing fetuses but also infuses them with important nutrients from their mother—is really like a car engine, according to Carolyn Coyne, PhD. Drivers rarely think about it on their daily commute, because it normally works so well. But when you find yourself on the side of the road, it’s a different story.

Coyne didn’t think about placentas much either until she was pregnant with her son twelve years ago. At the time, she was starting her lab at the University of Pittsburgh studying how viruses we eat—those found in contaminated food and water—are able to bypass the gut barrier.

“When I started at Pitt, I really thought that was what my focus was going to be— how these little viruses, which are pretty simple structures when you think about it, figure out how to go through the stomach and get into the intestine and cross the intestine to infect us and make us very sick,” said Coyne.

Coyne will join the Duke faculty in July 2021 as a professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Biology, recruited with support from the Duke Endowment to advance faculty recruitment in the sciences.
She took a circuitous route to study how viruses infect the gut and placental barriers. “Not a science kid,” she majored in psychology at Florida State University but switched to biochemistry her second year after taking a biochemistry class that she loved. As an undergraduate, she worked as a pharmacy technician, leading her to pursue a doctorate in pharmacology at the University of North Carolina. A postdoctoral research fellowship in pediatric infectious disease at the University of Pennsylvania turned her onto the idea of studying children, but it wasn’t until she was pregnant with her first child that she became intrigued by the placenta.

image of a placenta under the microscope A fluorescent image of human placenta tissue. Courtesy of Carolyn Coyne.

“I was working in the lab then thinking about this idea of ‘how do viruses cross this placenta?’” said Coyne. “And I just was fascinated by this and struck by the idea that I didn’t think it had ever been studied in the type of detail that I felt as a virologist that I wanted to study it.”

Coyne followed her instinct and split her lab, focusing partly on the gut barrier and partly on the placental barrier. She investigates how the placenta has evolved to be such a fantastic protector but can also be vulnerable to certain pathogens. Recently, this has included cytomegalovirus (CMV), Rubella, and the earth-shaking Zika virus outbreak in 2015. “When Zika hit, it really magnified how little work had been done in this field, in understanding the road map of transmission,” said Coyne. 

When she gives talks on the placenta, Coyne often shows a picture of a busy Japanese subway to emphasize the complex nature of its defense pathways. “What we’re really trying to do is basically identify the blockades that stop the virus from getting in, and we’ve done a really get job at that,” said Coyne. “But what’s been trickier to study is the detours that microorganisms like viruses and bacteria take to get in, or the methods by which, in some cases they’re able to overcome the blockades.”

Coyne was drawn back South by the appeal of living again in the vibrant Research Triangle, where she and her husband and son hope to take advantage of the close proximity to both the beach and the mountains and their associated fishing spots. She was attracted to the access to world-class scientists at Duke working in reproductive health, biology, and gastroenterology.

“Because we tend to be a lab that studies lots of different things, one of the things that’s inherent to that type of science is the need to seek out other expertise,” said Coyne. “I remember that first morning drive on campus where it really struck me that here are all of these amazing scientists with really unique expertise within walking distance, within two minutes of each other. That, and every person I met with ended our meeting saying, ‘Oh that would be really exciting, we should talk about this, maybe we could do this.’ That is the kind of environment as a scientist that you want to be in.”

Carolyn Coyne investigates how the placenta protects developing fetuses from dangerous pathogens. Courtesy of Carolyn Coyne.

Specifically, Coyne is excited by the prospects of partnering with colleagues at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, as well as the opportunity to build and advance the Hope 1,000 project that provides tissue specimens from pregnant participants for researchers to use and study. The biobank is an important tool for researchers who currently study diseases impacting pregnant women, but also for attracting researchers to the relatively understudied area, according to Coyne.

“My ultimate dream is that someone who barely knows what a placenta is basically uses the opportunity to access that tissue bank to move into this field, to take their expertise and say ‘Hey this is a really interesting tissue, I don’t know anything about it but I know where I can go to access it and work with it,’” she said.

Coyne is reluctant to talk about developing therapies—particularly given the complexities of developing and testing therapeutics in pregnancy—but she knows that advancing knowledge of placental pathways will help to prepare for viral outbreaks that could impact pregnant women in the future.

“To me, the super interesting part of pregnancy is that it’s two sides that have to work in this perfect balance to maintain the pregnancy and maintain the health of the mother, all while doing these really complicated things like protecting the fetus from infection,” said Coyne. “I really think it’s the most beautiful part of biology.”

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