Lab grown ‘mini-placentas’ can mimic early pregnancy

London: Scientists have created artificial mini-placentas in the laboratory after nearly three decades of research, offering hope for tackling miscarriages, stillbirths and premature births as well as transform pregnancy research.

The new ‘mini-placentas’ are a cellular model of the early stages of the placenta and may shed light on mysteries surrounding the relationships between the placenta, the uterus and the foetus and enable research to prevent some infections passing from the mother’s blood to the foetus as well as on Zika virus.

“These ‘mini-placentas’ built on decades of research will play an important role in helping us investigate events that happen during the earliest stages of pregnancy and yet have profound consequences for the life-long health of the mother and her offspring,” explained Professor Graham Burton from the UK’s University of Cambridge.

“The placenta supplies all the oxygen and nutrients essential for growth of the foetus, and if it fails to develop properly the pregnancy can sadly end with a low birthweight baby or even a stillbirth,” he added.

For the new study, published in the journal Nature, the team grew organoids often referred to as ‘mini-organs’ using cells from villi — tiny frond-like structures — taken from placental tissue.

These trophoblast organoids are able to survive for long-term, are genetically stable and organise into villous-like structures that secrete essential proteins and hormones that would affect the mother’s metabolism during pregnancy.

Further analysis showed that the organoids closely resemble normal first-trimester placentas, that they are able to record a positive response on an over-the-counter pregnancy test.

In addition, these organoids may also be used for screening the safety of drugs to be used in early pregnancy, to understand how chromosomal abnormalities may perturb normal development, and possibly even provide stem cell therapies for failing pregnancies.

The placenta is absolutely essential for supporting the baby as it grows inside the mother. When it doesn’t function properly, it can result in serious problems, from pre-eclampsia to miscarriage, with immediate and lifelong consequences for both mother and child.

Efforts to grow human placental cells started over 30 years ago with Cambridge scientists studying cellular events of the first few weeks of pregnancy.