The placenta is an organ that plays a very important role to both mother and child during pregnancy. It allows nutrient intake, eliminates waste and permits gas exchange for a growing fetus. It produces hormones that support the mother during the process. The placenta temporarily connects the mother and child during pregnancy, and it is an important subject in the line of prenatal research.

Previous studies about the placenta have used those of animals and laboratory-grown human cells. It has become difficult to accurately identify how this organ works exactly, as it functions with greater complexity in humans. A study involving natural human placentas could take a lot of time.

"I try not to hate on people doing animal experiments — we do that, too. But we can do this [with the chip] before we go to the animal," said Roberto Romero from the National Institute of Child Health.

Romero and his team devised technology that allows a chip to better study the human placenta. In placing a "mini-placenta" on a chip to conduct such a study, scientists could spend less time while getting more accurate results.

"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 explained.

In a structure more closely resembling the placenta's maternal-fetal barrier, the researchers placed a semi-permeable membrane between two small chambers in the device. One chamber was filled with maternal cells derived from a delivered placenta and the other was filled with fetal cells derived from an umbilical cord.

The scientists then tested the structure's functionality by evaluating the transfer of glucose from the maternal to the fetal compartments. This successful transfer of glucose mimicked occurrences in the body during pregnancy.

Before the idea of chip technology for this purpose came about, scientists found placenta study time-consuming — not to mention dangerous, as it is very risky to the fetus. Now, scientists can identify how different materials move across that barrier.

The placenta-on-chip technology has also caught the attention of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Wayne State University/Detroit Medical Center, Seoul National University and Asan Medical Center in South Korea.

Romero describes the mysterious temporary organ as "completely understudied." But with this new technology, the NIH is hopeful that the technology will be used to understand the inner workings of the human placenta in ways "never been done before."

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