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Researcher summarizes three decades of groundbreaking perinatal research

William J. Pearce, PhD, professor of physiology at Loma Linda University, recalls 30 years of collaboration at Lawrence D. Longo MD Center for Perinatal Biology.

The recent renaming of the Center for Perinatal Biology at Loma Linda University School of Medicine (LLUSM) has drawn attention once again to the incomparable legacy of the late Lawrence D. Longo, MD.

As announced in the June 22 edition of The School of Medicine Report, the center has been renamed the Lawrence D. Longo MD Center for Perinatal Biology because of Longo’s world-renowned leadership in the fields of developmental biology and physiology, maternal-fetal medicine, and obstetrics/gynecology. The new name helps assure that Longo’s passion for issues relating to women’s health and fetal development will continue to be the focus of the center.

According to William J. Pearce, PhD, professor of physiology at Loma Linda University (LLU) and long-term Longo collaborator, researchers at the center “actually moved the field during the past three decades. What we did was to incorporate novel ideas and technology in order to open up new areas of investigation.”

Pearce should know. After completing three years of postdoctoral training at UCLA in physiology and pharmacology, he was recruited as director of research at White Memorial Medical Center in 1982, where he worked under the late George Kypridakis, MD, pathologist and LLU associate dean. Kypridakis worked with Longo to arrange an assistant professorship for Pearce at Loma Linda in 1983.

Five years later, after Pearce was awarded his first R01 grant, Longo asked him to join the center faculty full-time. Pearce accepted the invitation and worked alongside his colleague and mentor for the next 33 years until Longo’s death in January 2016.

Pearce recalls that Longo insisted on the highest academic standards, and sometimes even made things more challenging for his junior faculty by competing with them on collaborative projects. The strategy paid off, Pearce notes, by spurring team members to greater accomplishments. “We were all super productive,” he says.

At the conclusion of the momentous symposium held to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the center in 2013, Pearce was asked to contribute a chapter to a 2014 book commemorating the event. Titled Advances in Fetal and Neonatal Physiology, the 240-page volume was published by Springer and edited by Lubo Zhang, PhD, and Charles A. Ducsay, PhD. Zhang succeeded Longo as director of the center, and Ducsay is a professor of physiology at LLUSM. The book is available at the Del E. Webb Memorial Library on the LLU campus.

Pearce’s chapter, “The Fetal Cerebral Circulation: Three Decades of Exploration by the LLU Center for Perinatal Biology,” deals with one of the center’s key research interests. It may be accessed online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed.

In the overview of his chapter, Pearce notes that, “The past three decades have transformed thinking about, and understanding of, the fetal cerebral circulation. Overall, it is clear that fetal cerebral arteries are in many ways structurally and functionally quite different than adult cerebral arteries.

“More importantly,” he continues, “the mechanisms that govern the composition and contractility of cerebral arteries are highly dynamic and involve multiple mechanisms operating at all levels of organization.”

Pearce goes into greater depth in explaining the specifics involved before summarizing the accomplishments of the center in general terms.

“As for most scientific programs of research, studies of the vascular biology of the fetal brain have produced more questions than answers,” he continues. “That said, it is clearly a worthy topic of continued investigation, particularly as recent work suggests that smooth muscle plays a critical role not only in regulating blood flow, but in the responses to, and recovery from, cerebral injury.

Pearce asserts that above all other findings, the center's research has produced one very significant finding with vital significance for the health of future generations.

"The most important item to come from our work is that 'fetal stress' of any kind should be minimized," he insists, "because fetal stress can cause lifelong changes in gene expression that can increase the risks for development of several diseases including hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and others. Fetal stresses fall in several different categories.  Most important is oxygen stress, which can arise from being at high altitude, maternal lung disease, maternal anemia, or placental insufficiency.  Obviously, pregnant mothers should avoid not just smoking of any kind, but exposure to diesel exhaust, trips into the high mountains, and blood donation. A good obstetrician will monitor routinely the signs of good fetal oxygenation."
 
He notes that a second category of fetal stress arises from inadequate nutrition. 

"This means that major reductions in caloric intake, or protein intake, should be avoided during pregnancy," Pearce continues. "Similarly, vitamin and mineral intake (e.g. calcium, folate, etc.) should be thoughtfully managed, usually by consumption of a varied diet with abundant roughage, fruits, and vegetables.  Consumption of foods with very high sugar and saturated fat intake should be minimized. 

Pearce goes on to report that another key component of any well-balanced diet is excellent hydration, which means, in lay terms, that pregnant women need to get plenty of fresh water to drink.
 
"A third category of fetal stress," he adds, "is heat stress, which means that maternal body temperature should be kept near normal. Strenuous activity in the heat should be avoided. However, light to moderate exercise in an environment with a reasonable ambient temperature (below 80 degrees Fahrenheit), can be very beneficial for both mother and baby.

“Without doubt,” he concludes, “the Center for Perinatal Biology will continue their adventures in this arena, and with all the new genetic and analytical tools becoming available, the next 30 years might be even more interesting than the last.”

When he’s not in the laboratory or teaching classes, Pearce enjoys playing the bass guitar and other instruments, recording his own rock and jazz compositions in his home studio, cooking for family and friends, building speaker cabinets and amplifiers, and writing stories with his wife, a professional author of more than 200 children’s books.

Most of all, however, he loves science and research. “Nothing’s more fun than that!”