Scientists are hoping more research into the short-lived organ will help prevent life-threatening conditions for women and their unborn babies.
The placenta is an often over-looked organ, discarded after birth but scientists are now starting to turn to it as a source of information about life and what this mysterious organ’s role can teach us.
More studies are now being carried out on donated placentas also known as the ‘afterbirth’ to find out exactly how it manages to provide life to unborn babies acting as a feeder of nutrients, provides immune defense, and pumps vital hormones to the fetus.
By studying the placenta more closely, the Human Placenta Project involving Catherine Spong of the National Institutes of Health and her team, scientists hope to find out more about the prevention of stillbirths, preeclampsia, premature births and infections such as the latest Zika outbreak affecting pregnant women.
“We take it for granted, yet there are lifelong implications for both the mother and the baby,” stated Spong about studying the placenta more intimately.
It’s the outbreak and implications of the Zika virus that has caused concern and spurred on the need to research more about the placenta’s role in the pregnancy process such as how the placenta forms and changes during the gestation period. By identifying and understanding the processes more, scientists will be able to spot problems that could be potentially life-threatening to both mother and baby.
The research team at Children’s National Health System is using a 3-D bioprinter to reconstruct a living model of how the placenta forms. Layers of human cells are added showing a real-life forming process and it’s this that will help researchers understand the intricate ways it forms to support the fetus inside the womb. In particular, preeclampsia that affects millions of women around the world.
Other research is going into finding out oxygen levels from the placenta to the fetus which is currently unknown. A wireless device is being engineered by biomedical engineer Afrouz Anderson that can measure placental oxygen when held over the stomach of a pregnant woman.
Placental research is coming at a critical time – even if the Zika virus fades there is always a chance a new threat will come along as well as already existing conditions. The key to understanding the placenta and its role will go towards healthy prevention.