First Ever Placenta-On-A-Chip Invented to Support Pregnancy

“The device consists of a semi-permeable membrane between two tiny chambers, one filled with maternal cells derived from a delivered placenta and the other filled with fetal cells derived from an umbilical cord,” the NIH explained in a statement.

The placenta – also known as afterbirth – is an organ that connects the developing fetus to the uterine wall to allow nutrient uptake, waste elimination, and gas exchange via the mother’s blood supply. It also helps fight against internal infection and produce hormones to support pregnancy. However, despite knowing their function and importance, the placenta is still a mystery to scientists.

The “least understood human organ.” claims the NIH about the placenta. But there are research inroads being made. One of them is the Human Placenta Project, a $42 million NIH research effort. The project is bringing together a diverse group of placental biologists and other scientists to better understand what Romero calls a “marvelous and intriguing organ”—a single organ that does the work of many.

“The chip may allow us to do experiments more efficiently and at a lower cost than animal studies,” said Roberto Romero, the chief of the perinatology research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in a statement. “We hope this technology may lead to better understanding of normal placental processes and placental disorders.”

To test the model, scientists infused glucose into the chamber of the device that contained maternal cells—then watched as glucose was transferred through the semi-permeable membrane and over to the chamber of fetal cells, a process that that mirrors what happens when nutrients are passed through the placenta to a growing fetus.

“The chip may allow us to do experiments more efficiently and at a lower cost than animal studies,” said Roberto Romero, the chief of the perinatology research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in a statement. “We hope this technology may lead to better understanding of normal placental processes and placental disorders.”

“The organ begins forming in the lining of the uterus as soon as a fertilized egg lands there, embedding itself deeply in the mother’s tissue and tapping into her arteries so aggressively that researchers liken it to cancer,” Denise Grady wrote in The New York Times last year. “In most other mammals, the placental attachment is much more superficial.”

Some women are known to freeze their placentas, or even plant them beneath trees. Other women even may even eat up their placentas — although there is no scientific evidence that claims that eating placenta is good for you. Eating a placenta, especially if uncooked, could infact be harmful. On the other hand, if you’d rather have polenta, that is not only suepr healthy but also delicious!

“The ‘placenta-on-a-chip’ is a unique device that would allow physicians and scientists to learn about all of these placental functions in an efficient way, without resorting to animal experimentation or cell culture models that have not been accurate in the past. We have developed the placenta-on-a-chip in response to the need to understand this important organ.” (Romero)

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