Bioengineers at the University of Pennsylvania have created a working miniature human placenta housed within a microchip. According to a press release, the ‘placenta-on-a-chip’ recreates the placental barrier that separates a fetus’ bloodstream from that of its mother.

In the team’s recent publication in the journal Lab On A Chip, researchers claim the device mimics the most important functions of the human placenta:

Importantly, the rate of maternal-to-fetal glucose transfer in this system closely approximated that measured in ex vivo perfused human placentas. Our “placenta-on-a-chip” platform represents an important advance in the development of new technologies to model and study the physiological complexity of the human placenta for a wide variety of applications.

The entire device is housed in a clear silicon enclosure, allowing researchers to watch it function. The placental chip is essentially two microscopic fluid channels separated by a cellular barrier. The two kinds of cells that make up this barrier are the same found in human placental barriers: trophoblast cells and endothelial cells. These cells allow blood and nutrients to flow in and out of the human womb while blocking unwanted intruders such as viruses.

The human placenta acts as a vital barrier between mother and fetus.

The cells within the chip are very much alive, continuing to grow and develop while housed inside the chip. The trophoblast cells inside the chip were observed to fuse together to form a special type of placental barrier tissue once the researchers began transporting fluids and nutrients through the chip.

Placental tissues act as a kind of 'filter' for maternal blood flowing in and out of fetuses.

This bizarre placenta chip will allow neonatal medical researchers to study placenta-fetus interactions in a much more controlled and safe environment than in human subjects. The study was funded in part by the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center, which seeks to improve the health and viability outcomes of premature babies.

Organs on chips, such as this lung-on-a-chip, could soon replace animal and human test subjects.

The placenta-on-a-chip comes on the heels of many other chip-based organ substitutes being developed by biomedical researchers. These minuscule organ simulators allow researchers a unique glimpse into the inner workings of human organs, and can even be snapped together like Lego bricks in order to study unique interactions between organs and tissues that would otherwise never be connected in the human body.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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