The placenta-on-a-chip could allow researchers to study the inner workings of the placenta more efficiently and at a lower cost than existing placenta models.
The study, published in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine, was conducted by researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and colleagues based in the US and South Korea.
"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," says study author Dr. Roberto Romero, chief of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).
The placenta is an organ that develops within the uterus during pregnancy to provide nutrients and oxygen for the baby and to remove waste products from its blood. In addition, the placenta is partly responsible for keeping harmful environmental exposures such as bacteria and some medications away from the fetus.
If the placenta does not function properly, it can compromise the health of both mother and child. As a result, researchers are keen to learn precisely how the placenta manages to transport certain substances while keeping away harmful ones. However, placenta research is a tricky business.
Not only is studying the placenta in humans time-consuming but it can also be risky to the growing fetus. Scientists investigating placental transport tend to examine animal placentas or human cells grown in a laboratory for these reasons.
While useful, these studies can only mimic human physiological processes to a limited extent. Another problem is that there is a lack of standardization among placenta researchers, leading to conflicting results due to variability in practices between laboratories.
The device successfully mirrors transfer of glucose from placenta to fetus
To address these limitations, the researchers developed a prototype "placenta-on-a-chip" microdevice, following the lead from other new organ-on-a-chip developments that are promising to revolutionize organ and drug research.
The device is designed to mimic the placenta's maternal-fetal barrier, using human cells within its structure. Two chambers are separated by a semi-permeable membrane, with one chamber containing cells from a placenta and the other containing cells taken from an umbilical cord.
For the study, the researchers tested the device's function by assessing how glucose transferred from the maternal chamber containing the placenta cells to the fetal chamber containing the umbilical cord cells.
The researchers found that glucose transferred successfully between the two chambers in a manner that mimicked the process that occurs naturally in the human body.
"The chip may allow us to do experiments more efficiently and at a lower cost than animal studies," states Dr. Romero. "With further improvements, we hope this technology may lead to better understanding of normal placental processes and placental disorders."
One aspect of human placental processes not mirrored by the microdevice is the levels of stress that occur in fetal capillaries. The researchers state that this could be recreated by reducing the size of the fetal chamber or by increasing the rate of fluid flow on the fetal side.
They also acknowledge that further studies using more human cells will need to be conducted. Despite these limitations, however, they believe their prototype has potential to serve as a low-cost platform for exploring key pathological features of placental diseases.
"Our placenta-on-a-chip model represents exciting progress in this area and lays the groundwork for future studies aiming to explore the potential of organs-on-chips technology for reproductive biology and medicine," the researchers conclude.
After giving birth, many women opt to consume their placenta for supposed health benefits. A recent study, however, has reported that there is as yet no scientific evidence for these benefits.