Author: Jasmin Wächter, Master’s student, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, UBC | Editors: Negin Nia, Arrthy Thayaparan (Blog Coordinators) & Shreya Sharma
Published: December 10th, 2021
The placenta is, arguably, the most important yet continuously under-appreciated organ in the body. The placenta not only determines the outcomes for pregnancy and later life for the mother, it also impacts the life of the child. A healthy placenta is a bonus to the child’s health across mental, metabolic, and cardiovascular functions. Unfortunately, very little is known about this crucial organ. This is changing with new initiatives focusing on understanding placental health and its outcomes.
Before we dive deeper into the importance of this organ, let’s get to know it better.
During pregnancy, the placenta grows and develops alongside the baby. This disk-shaped organ forms the barrier between the maternal and fetal blood circulation.
Throughout pregnancy, the placenta releases important chemical messengers called hormones. Hormones signal to the mother’s body that there is an ongoing pregnancy and instruct it to make nutrients available for the growing fetus. As internet science and pop culture continuously remind us, hormones are essential to an optimally functioning body.
Its tree-like protrusions deeply embed themselves into the mother’s womb and selectively allow the transport of nutrients, oxygen and waste products across. Moreover, the placenta can also filter compounds that may have negatively affected the pregnancy such as stress signals.
The function that most excites me, is the placental cells’ ability to make their presence known in the womb -- which is what my research is focused on. They detach themselves from the placenta’s tree-like protrusions and invade, in a cancer-like manner, deeper into the mother’s womb to adapt it for a successful pregnancy. It’s them declaring their arrival in the body!
When it comes to the mother, the placental cells communicate with the immune cells to ensure the growing fetus isn’t mislabeled as a “foreign invader” and rejected or even attacked by the resident immune system. These adaptations are crucially important to ensure the health of the baby and mother throughout pregnancy and in the future.
Now that we know what a placenta is, let’s see what can happen when things take a wrong turn. And why it is important to educate ourselves on this organ.
Inadequate placental development can lead to a range of complications.
For instance – the fetus could experience a lack of growth and small size. This can exacerbate early delivery, infections and even stillbirth. These impacts stay with the babies as they grow into adults. Conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease, allergies, neurodegenerative disease and mental health challenges have all been linked to inadequate placental function.
And it’s not just about the child being born. Placental malfunctions also put pregnant mothers at risk. Preeclampsia is one such condition that occurs when the mother’s body is unable to support the needs of the growing fetus. This condition causes the body to overcompensate and exert itself leading to tiredness, pain, high blood pressure and even organ damage. If left untreated, this may lead to seizures or even death. The influence of the placenta seems to extend beyond birth; mothers who’ve had placental complications are more likely to develop diabetes or cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.
So despite the influence of placental health on life, why is effective research yet to be done?
Various barriers prevent effective placental research, primarily funding. This may be attributed to the historical underfunding of research topics categorised into “women’s issues”. Moreover, the transient nature of the placenta makes it an especially difficult organ to target. To achieve a thorough understanding of the placental process, it is imperative to examine its development throughout the first, second and third trimesters. This is not always possible due to governmental restrictions imposed on abortions and the laws surrounding embryonic and fetal research.
However, all is not doom and gloom as the scientific community continues to work on new initiatives in the field.
Recent years have brought initiatives such as the Human Placenta Project which aims to develop new tools to study the placenta, in real-time. Improved ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques are aimed to track the structure and blood, oxygen and nutrient flow throughout the placenta. This would allow for earlier discovery and monitoring of at-risk pregnancies.
Scientists are also investigating ways to collect information about placental health, function and genetic make-up by tracking placental components such as proteins, lipids and RNA present in the mother’s bloodstream.
Other approaches include creating mini-placentas, called organoids. These three-dimensional clusters of cells recapitulate the cellular organisation and developmental trajectory of the placenta, allowing researchers to study the interactions of different cell types throughout development. Future research may even allow for the inclusion of blood vessels in the system as seen in other mini-organ structures.
Another approach to studying placental function includes so-called placentas on a chip. This model is constituted of 2 human placental cell layers surrounded by fluid channels. The setup recapitulates the placental barrier between the fetus and the mother. This allows scientists to investigate how different compounds are transported or filtered across the placenta.
Let me beat the drum, again.
The placenta is a crucial organ for a successful pregnancy and a healthy life. Historical underfunding and barriers to placental research are being met with new initiatives and technologies such as the human placenta project, mini-placentas and placentas on a chip. Any findings generated could allow us to develop improved treatments for pregnancy complications in the future and allow people to have healthier pregnancies and a better start to their life.