'Placenta-on-a-chip' to boost understanding of pregnancy

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A prototype device that can be used to model the flow of nutrients and waste and between a mother and her foetus, could shed new light on the role the placenta plays in pregnancy researchers have claimed.

Developed by a team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) the “placenta-on-a-chip” device mimics the structure and function of the human placenta and offers a potential alternative to human and animal trials.

US researchers have developed a 'Placenta-on-a-chip' micro device
US researchers have developed a ‘Placenta-on-a-chip’ micro device

Understanding precisely how the placenta manages the flow of substances between the mother and her foetus is a major area of research. However, studying the placenta in humans is a challenging, time-consuming and potentially risky process.

Previous studies on placental transport have relied largely on animal models and on laboratory-grown human cells. These methods have yielded helpful information, but are limited as to how well they can mimic physiological processes in humans.

The device, which mimics the placenta’s maternal-foetal barrier, 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 foetal cells derived from an umbilical cord.

After designing the structure of the model, the researchers tested its function by evaluating the transfer of glucose from the maternal compartment to the foetal compartment.

The successful transfer of glucose in the device mirrored what occurs in the body.

“The chip may allow us to do experiments more efficiently and at a lower cost than animal studies,” said Roberto Romero, M.D., chief of the NICHD’s Perinatology Research Branch and one of the study authors.

The study was published online in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine.