A ‘placenta-on-a-chip’ has been developed by American researchers to study what happens between the foetus and the mother’s body during pregnancy.
The device, designed by a team from the US National Institute of Health, imitates on a micro-level the structure and function of the placenta and mimics the transfer of nutrients between the mother and the child.
The researchers believe the device, the first of its kind, could help them better understand the delicate processes managed by this critical organ.
"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, chief of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Perinatology Research Branch and one of the study authors.
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 foetal cells taken from an umbilical cord.
The researchers will use the device to determine how a real placenta - a temporary organ developed during pregnancy - manages the traffic of chemicals between the mother and the unborn child, effectively blocking waste and pollutants and delivering much-needed nutrients.
"The chip may allow us to do experiments more efficiently and at a lower cost than animal studies," said Romero. "With further improvements, we hope this technology may lead to better understanding of normal placental processes and placental disorders."
Tests with glucose transfer from the maternal compartment to the foetal compartment of the device proved the device works as designed.
Studying the placenta in humans is extremely difficult. It is not only time-consuming and subject to a great deal of variability, but also potentially risky for the foetus.
For those reasons, 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 study was published online in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine. It was a joint project of the NIH's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the University of Pennsylvania, Wayne State University/Detroit Medical Center, Seoul National University and Asan Medical Center in South Korea.