The 'Placenta-on-a-chip' is not what you think it is

Jun 22, 2015 at 3:00 p.m. ET
Image: Ashley Barrett

It's time we give the placenta the attention it deserves.

Innies, outies, somewhere in between — we all have a bellybutton, our literal and visual reminder of the connection that once bound us to our mothers.

But those bellybuttons of ours (some more presentable for public consumption than others) carried the most important function of our beginnings in their attachment to the very unappealing placenta. And perhaps because the placenta really does look, at best, nondescript and at worst, totally horrifying, science hasn't really given much thought to the temporary organ of childbirth.

Now, however, the placenta is getting some serious investigational props with the creation of the Placenta-On-A-Chip. Not to be confused with placenta chips, as I first took it, although we all know that some women really would go for that sort of thing.

By creating the Placenta-On-A-Chip, researchers hope to literally replicate the way a woman's placenta works by shrinking it down to the size of a computer chip. Scientists used cells from both the maternal and fetal sides and created a type of semi-permeable membrane that mimics how the placenta works.

The placenta is unique because it is both a barrier from foreign objects getting to the fetus, but also a mode of transportation to get the good stuff, like oxygen and nutrients, to the fetus. In other words, it blocks some stuff and ships other stuff in. The question is how it decides what makes the cut and how exactly things are transported, which is what studying the chip hopes to help answer.

In looking at the Placenta-On-A-Chip (again, computer chip, not tortilla), researchers hope to learn more about how the placenta works, specifically as a semi-permeable membrane. Which is important, especially for pregnant women taking medications. Currently, we don't have a really good way of studying what passes the placenta barrier without directly studying pregnant women because we don't really know how the placenta works. But hopefully that will change soon and women who desperately need medication during their pregnancy (even for something as simple as a headache) can know what's safe and what poses a danger to their babies. Studying the placenta is so important, in fact, that efforts like The Human Placenta Project, currently backed by almost 42 million dollars, are working around-the-clock to break down the mystery of the placenta.

Honestly, when you think about it, the placenta is so incredible it's kind of scary. More blood-sucking than the world's worst parasite, the placenta burrows into a woman's body so aggressively one scientist likened it to cancer. And the fact that a woman's body can literally grow an entire organ just for the purpose of growing a human being?

It's no wonder we are scared to learn the truth about how the placenta works. It's basically something out of a sci-fi movie.

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