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Emerging Principal Investigators: Dr. Kaela Varberg


Emerging Principal Investigators: Dr. Kaela Varberg

Headshot of Kaela M Varberg, PhD
Kaela M Varberg, PhD
Doctoral Research Faculty; Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine; Research Assistant Professor of Pathology, University of Kansas School of Medicine
Full Biography

As Children’s Mercy Research Institute (CMRI) grows its research programs, the institute has welcomed many innovative, early-career investigators to its roster of researchers. These investigators bring their novel ideas, unique talents, and diverse interests to the CMRI. The following profile is one in our series on emerging principal investigators.


Kaela Varberg, PhD, Independent Investigator, Neonatology, is fascinated by maternal-fetal interaction and the field of developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD). These interests have continued to evolve since her graduate training under the mentorship of Laura Haneline, MD, Edwin L. Gresham Professor of Pediatrics and Division Chief of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine. Dr. Varberg’s current research focuses on the role the placenta plays in maternal-fetal health, the long-term health outcomes for the child, and even outcomes for future generations.


“The placenta is so cool because it is a transient organ that develops in the uterus during pregnancy to support fetal growth and then is delivered at birth when its job is done," said Dr. Varberg. “Although there is evidence that the placenta can adapt to its environment, different insults can impact its ability to develop and function. This not only affects maternal and fetal health but also has the potential to impact future generations as well. That motivates me.”


Dr. Varberg also brings a unique perspective to her research after her own diagnosis with a rare disease in 2018. During her postdoctoral fellowship in reproductive biology at the University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC), Dr. Varberg was diagnosed with the rare lung disease Lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM). “It’s been interesting to go on my own medical odyssey to find out about my rare disease while training to become a biomedical research scientist,” she said. “I look at research through a different lens now and know firsthand the value of receiving a diagnosis. I hope to use my experience to support and advance rare disease research.”


In fall 2023, Dr. Varberg received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) R00 award for her project, “Regulation of invasive trophoblast cell lineage development.” This study continues her project funded by a 2022 NIH K99 award. The placenta is comprised of specialized cells called trophoblast cells. Invasive trophoblast cells participate in a process called uterine spiral artery remodeling. This process helps increase maternal blood flow to the baby to support development. Her study aims to identify gene targets critical to trophoblast cells participating in the remodeling process. Insufficient remodeling can result in low quality fetal conditions and adverse pregnancy outcomes. These include pregnancy loss, preeclampsia, intrauterine growth restriction, and preterm birth.


To study adverse outcomes, Dr. Varberg helped establish a method for deriving patient-specific placental cell lines from leftover tissue samples obtained for clinical purposes. During her postdoctoral research, Dr. Varberg worked on generating cell lines under the mentorship of Michael Soares, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, KUMC. While there, she also collaborated with physician scientists at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Physicians perform chorionic villus testing between 10 to 14 weeks of pregnancy and then the lab team generates cell lines from the leftover tissue. “Because we know the outcome from these pregnancies, it’s an opportunity to have early placental cell biology insight and then link that with pregnancy outcomes,” she said.  


Dr. Varberg is also working to generate patient-specific cell lines from placental tissues recovered following recurring natural miscarriage in hopes of better understanding underlying causes of recurrent pregnancy loss. This is part of an ongoing project in the CMRI Genomic Medicine Center led by Elin Grundberg, PhD, in collaboration with Courtney Marsh, MDMPH FACOG, Director of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility, KUMC. “I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the ongoing research initiatives here at CMH, including the collaboration with Drs. Grundberg and Marsh to investigate underlying causes of idiopathic recurrent pregnancy loss,” said Dr. Varberg.


Not only is Dr. Varberg focused on her research goals, but she is committed to training the next generation of scientists and promoting Kansas City as a regional hub for biomedical research. “Although I’m in the early stages of my career as an independent investigator, I’m also focused on how to best facilitate the development and support of the next generation of researchers,” she said.


In addition to her role at Children’s Mercy, Dr. Varberg is an Assistant Professor at the UMKC SOM and a Joint Appointment Assistant Professor at KUMC. She is also on the Science Advisory Council at Rockhurst University (Class of 2012), co-chair for the LAM Foundation’s Early Investigator Group, and Vice President of the US Developmental Origins of Health and Disease Society.