Medical researchers are extremely leery of interfering in a woman’s pregnancy by subjecting her to tests and invasive monitoring, lest they harm the mother or child. That’s why scientists at the National Institutes of Health developed a placenta-on-a chip that mimics on a microscopic scale the structure and function of the placenta, including the transfer of nutrients from the mother to the fetus.
The chip contains two small chambers separated by a semi-permeable membrane. One chamber is filled with maternal cells taken from a healthy placenta donated by a mother after delivering a child, while the other chamber is filled with fetal cells derived from an umbilical cord. Researchers can inject and remove small amounts of liquids to see what moves across the membrane and in what direction.
The team tested the chip by placing glucose, which the human body makes when converting carbohydrates to energy, in the maternal compartment and monitoring its movement to the fetal compartment. The glucose transfer mirrored what happens in the body, indicating the chip was an accurate model.
The placenta, a temporary organ that develops in pregnancy and is the major interface between mother and fetus, serves as a security system for substances traveling between mother and fetus. It helps nutrients and oxygen move to the fetus and then moves waste products away. It also tries to prevent bacteria, viruses, and certain medications from reaching the fetus. When the placenta doesn’t function correctly, the health of both mother and baby suffers.
Using the chip will let researchers safely explore several issues and potential treatments. The chips will also be less expensive than animal studies and produce results much faster.