Placenta-on-a chip designed to throw new light on pregnancy

By: Mohan Garikiparithi | Health News | Saturday, July 18, 2015 - 05:30 AM

placentachipIn the latest in a series of organ-on-a-chip technology developments, a team researchers from the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), teamed up with researchers from the U.S. and South Korea to design a “placenta-on-a-chip”.

The aim of this innovation is to study the inner workings of the human placenta and the role it plays during the human gestation period. The chip is designed to imitate the placenta on a micro-level and model the transfer of nutrients from mother to fetus.

“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 NICHD’s Perinatology Research Branch and study co-author.

The placenta is collection of tissues that develop during in pregnancy. Its main function is to serve as a channel for substances traveling between mother and fetus. The placenta helps nutrients and oxygen move from the mother to the fetus and move waste products away from the fetus. With the new placenta-on-a chip, scientists said they hope to learn how the placenta manages all this traffic. They said they want to know how it filters out the good from the bad nutrients traveling from the mother to the fetus, and how it ensures the good stuff does not escape from the fetus.

This understanding of the placenta’s core structure and function may one day help doctors and health professionals better assess placental health and improve the outcome of pregnancy, say researchers.

As studying the human placenta itself could be a risk to the fetus, studies on placental function have largely been done on animal models and on laboratory-grown human cells until now. While the studies have been helpful, they haven’t been able to shine a light on the physiological processes in humans.

To overcome this hurdle, researchers started using human cells in a structure (placenta-on-a-chip) that mimics the mother-fetus barrier in the placenta. The device consists of a semi-permeable membrane that separates a chamber filled with maternal cells from a chamber filled with fetal cells. The maternal cells are from an already delivered placenta and the fetal cells are from the umbilical cord.

To test the model, the researchers evaluated the transfer of glucose from the maternal chamber to the fetal chamber. 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 Romero. “With further improvements, we hope this technology may lead to better understanding of normal placental processes and placental disorders.”

The study is published online in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine. For more information, visit the Institute’s website at


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