Placentas get kind of a bum rap.
This is possibly because of all the hoopla about the mothers who blend their placentas into smoothies and eat them, which is not a thing most women do. Even beyond the organ’s ritualistic associations, the way people talk about the placenta is implicitly dismissive.
“It is described as the ‘afterbirth,’” said Catherine Spong, an obstetrician/gynecologist and the acting director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). “Like it’s just a thing that comes out afterward. It is an underappreciated organ, and has been understudied.”
To appreciate the placenta, you have to recognize that it’s responsible for sustaining a fetus as it grows into a baby, which is tethered by the umbilical cord to the placenta embedded in a pregnant woman’s uterine wall. Through this arrangement, the placenta provides nutrients and oxygen to the fetus, eliminates waste, regulates fetal temperature, produces hormones, and performs other crucial pregnancy tasks. For one organ to perform so many jobs—duties that would otherwise be handled by separate organs—is extraordinary.
Just as remarkable is the fact that doctors and scientists know so little about the placenta, relative to its importance. For the past two years, researchers with the National Institute of Health’s Human Placenta Project—with more than $50 million in funding—have been trying to correct this oversight. One of their biggest challenges, and one that’s central to their mission, is to better understand the placenta in real time.