BETHESDA, Md., June 18 (UPI) -- Researchers have created a placenta-on-a-chip that mimics the placental barrier, which helps fetuses to grow when in utero, to allow closer study of how the "throw-away organ" develops and works.
Publications about the device come four months after the National Institutes of Health announced $41.5 million in funding for placenta-focused research.
"We believe that this technology may be used to address questions that are difficult to answer with current placenta model systems and help enable research on pregnancy and its complications," said Roberto Romero, M.D., chief of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Perinatology Research Branch, in a press release. "The chip may allow us to do experiments more efficiently and at a lower cost than animal studies. With further improvements, we hope this technology may lead to better understanding of normal placental processes and placental disorders."
The placenta is a temporary organ that develops in pregnancy, acting as a mostly-sealed bag that protects the growing fetus from bacteria, viruses and some medications, while helping oxygen and nutrients move to the fetus and waste products away from it.
Most studies of the placenta, however, have been limited to ultrasounds, blood tests and examination of the placenta after birth because of difficulties and dangers studying it while it functions inside the mother, limiting knowledge of how the placenta develops, its normal functions and the roles it plays in health and disease.
In order to study the placenta in action, researchers placed maternal cells from a delivered placenta in a chamber on one side of a semi-permeable membrane and fetal cells from an umbilical cord in a chamber on the other side. Once the design was complete, researchers tested the transfer of glucose from the maternal compartment to the fetal compartment, successfully mirroring what happens in the body of a pregnant mother.
A placenta too small, malfunctioning, or not attached to the mother's womb properly, can cause the fetus to starve or lead to a range of conditions in the mother that cause premature delivery. Adult diseases such as heart disease and insulin resistance have also been linked to placental issues.
"It's the least understood human organ," said Alan Guttmacher, director of the NICHD, told Science. "A large part of the scientific community never thinks about the placenta at all."
Guttmacher said when the $41.5 million of funding was announced that it would go to research and technology such as the placenta-on-a-chip, as well as learning more about how blood and oxygen flow through the placenta, how it attaches to the uterine wall, and how it conveys nutrients to the fetus.
The study is published in The Journal of Maternal-Fetal and Neonatal Medicine.