Researchers have successfully managed to develop “mini placentas” or placenta organoids in the laboratories that could transform research of pregnancy, conception, stillbirth, miscarriages and pregnancy diseases and disorders.
The results of the study developing these organoids have been published in the latest issue of the journal Nature.
These organoids can successfully mimic the placenta in its early stages during the first trimester explain the researchers. This means that the drugs or diseases that affect the placenta during this phase and lead to miscarriages can be studied. In fact these tiny placentas are so like the real placenta that they can also test positive with a pregnancy test the team explains. Ashley Moffett, a senior researcher on the team and professor of reproductive immunology at Cambridge University confirmed this saying, “If we put a pregnancy stick into the medium from the organoids it reads ‘pregnant’.”
The team explains that studying a placenta within the womb has been notoriously difficult till date. The healthy placenta develops and attaches to the walls of the womb and supplies nutrients and oxygenated blood to the growing embryo and fetus. It not only secretes hormones and chemicals that allow the fetus to grow but also excretes the waste generated by the growing fetus. The placenta also secretes hormones into the maternal blood stream that helps carry the pregnancy successfully. These phenomenon could not be studied in humans till now. With the development of the organoids, now the researchers can understand the functions and workings of the placenta in details. Moffett said, “We can now begin to do experiments on how placental development occurs in the uterine environment.”
The team used cells from the villi of the placental tissue. These villi are hair like structures of the normal placenta. These placental cells when grown in the lab can organize into multi-cellular clumps or structures that can act like the real placenta by secreting proteins and hormones. These are of sizes ranging from a tenth of a millimetre to half a millimetre and can be stored in frozen form only to be thawed before use.
Experts in the filed have hailed this research and have said that it would provide invaluable insights into common pregnancy disorders including still births, growth restriction within the uterus (IUGR) and pre-eclampsia. Infections of the fetus such as Zika and how they affect the development and growth could also be studied they add.
Lead author of the research, Margherita Turco, in a statement said, “The placenta is absolutely essential for supporting the baby as it grows inside the mother. When it doesn’t function properly it can result in serious problems, from pre-eclampsia to miscarriage, with immediate and lifelong consequences for both mother and child.” The team adds that this would also be invaluable in testing teratogenic drugs or drugs that could harm the unborn baby if administered to the mother. Placental organoids would also be a source of stem cell therapies in failing or threatened pregnancies the team explains. In short, there are several uses of these organoids in pregnancy research.
According to Moffett, “It has taken 30 years to reach this point and to have mini-placentas which we know will grow in the laboratory for at least a year.”