One of the weirdest things about placentas, if you have to choose just one, is how very little we know about them. For an organ that is so essential to human life—it is the dark, pancake-shaped blob of blood and tissue that sustains a fetus while it grows, providing nutrients and eliminating waste—the placenta is in many ways still a mystery.
That’s why researchers at the National Institutes of Health created a “placenta-on-a-chip,” a miniature device that uses actual human cells to imitate the way a placenta works inside a pregnant woman’s body. They wrote about their findings in a paper published this week by The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine.
“The device consists of a semi-permeable membrane between two tiny chambers, one filled with maternal cells derived from a delivered placenta and the other filled with fetal cells derived from an umbilical cord,” the NIH explained in a statement.
To test the model, researchers added glucose to the chamber of the device that contained maternal cells—then watched as the glucose was transferred through the semi-permeable membrane and over to the chamber of fetal cells, a process that that mirrors what happens when nutrients are passed through the placenta to a growing fetus.
“The chip may allow us to do experiments more efficiently and at a lower cost than animal studies,” said Roberto Romero, the chief of the perinatology research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in a statement. “We hope this technology may lead to better understanding of normal placental processes and placental disorders.”