A placenta-on-a-chip has been developed in an effort to uncover some of the little-understood processes that take place during pregnancy. This microdevice could also help medical researchers and biologists better understand the development of fetuses as they form in the womb.

Placentas are temporary organs that form during pregnancy, forming a semi-permeable barrier between the baby and its mother. Acting like a traffic officer at a busy intersection, the placenta allows some substances, such as oxygen and nutrients, to cross into the fetus, while keeping harmful materials at bay. Viruses, harmful bacteria and other microorganisms that could be dangerous for the developing baby are also blocked from reaching the fetus. Researchers have yet to fully understand how these temporary organs carry out these tasks so efficiently.

"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," Roberto Romero, head of the Perinatology Research Branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) said.

Placentas can also pose challenges for health care workers attempting to treat women carrying babies. Not only do these organs stop waste products, but they also act as a barrier to many drugs meant to treat the unborn child.

Medical researchers studying placentas encounter several problems while researching the organ. For one, placentas are the connection between fetuses and the uterine wall, making experiments hazardous.

Most previous research on the selective passing of materials through placenta were usually carried out on animal organs or through networks created from laboratory-grown cells.

National Institutes of Health researchers have now developed a new device, featuring a pair or chambers separated by a semipermeable barrier. One chamber holds maternal cells, gathered from a placenta, while the other contains fetal cells obtained from an umbilical cord.

After adding glucose, a type of sugar, to the device, researchers studied how quickly the carbohydrate passed through the system. They found the artificial placenta nearly exactly mimics the natural organ.

"The chip may allow us to do experiments more efficiently and at a lower cost than animal studies. With further improvements, we hope this technology may lead to better understanding of normal placental processes and placental disorders," Romero told the press.

Other organs-on-a-chip have previously been developed to model how human body parts react to experimental drugs and treatments.

The word placenta comes from the Latin word "placentam," meaning "cake." This name is derived from the round, flat shape of the organ in human beings.

Development of the artificial placenta was detailed in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine.

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