Placentas are full of secrets. These researchers want to unlock them.

Placentas are full of secrets. These researchers want to unlock them. thumbnail

Vital to reproduction, poorly understood, and on the menu since the 1970s–these are all ways to describe the mighty human placenta. The pancake-shaped organ forms during pregnancy to connect a fetus to the uterus around it. It works with the umbilical chord to provide nutrients, hormones and oxygen to the baby’s growing body, as well as removing any waste. Research has shown that placental problems can indicate issues in both fetus as well as pregnant person ,ranging from gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, stillbirth, and premature birth.

Experts are still a little too ignorant about the development and operation of the placenta. In a blog post, Diana W. Bianchi (a senior investigator at NIH) stated that the placenta is “the least understood and least studied organ.” She also explained how better ultrasound and MRI imaging techniques can be used to help doctors study the placenta in pregnancy. This work was done by the Eastern Virginia Medical School as well as the University of Texas Medical Branch to study the placental vasculature.

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So what’s the mystery surrounding an organ that plays such a significant role in the birthing process. “The placenta is almost inaccessible until the time the baby is born. It is then discarded,” Hemant Surayawanshi, Columbia University assistant professor of reproductive sciences, said. “Most of the knowledge about the placenta comes from the last trimester, when the pregnancy is completed. But that is the stage where we have the most information.”

“What is most important about the placenta’s early stages of development is how it dynamically modifies its number of cells, its cell states, and how it interacts to the mother’s tissue versus that of the fetus tissue,” he says.

To better understand the placenta in utero, the NIH created the Human Placenta Project (HPP) in 2014. Since then, nearly $88 million has been dedicated to develop better research techniques to study the organ in real time. On his end, Suyrawanshi has completed two projects with the HPP, starting with a 2018 survey of first-trimester placenta cells. His team also sequenced RNA from newly developed placentas to begin building a genomic map; his recently published paper continued the research by mapping placenta RNA across all three trimesters of pregnancy.

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” Our goal was to see what is possible in a normal condition at single cell level, as well as across different trimesters,” Suyrawanshi explains. “For example, placenta accreta and preeclampsia are both diseases in which the placenta is involved. If you take those tissues from the disease conditions and profile their RNA, we have nothing to compare it to–there is no blueprint, and there is no profile already available.”

Suyrawanshi’s research has coincided with other HPP projects that focus on everything from sourcing the placental microbiome to investigating the organ’s genetic response to environmental pollution. Overall, however, the NIH initiative’s main goal is to improve health issues related to placenta. Suyrawanshi believes that more research will be needed. He hopes to be able to analyze the placenta’s fetal cells and conduct future research on disease conditions at a single-cell level, similar to the placenta genomic map his team has created.

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