Scientists grow 'mini-placentas' to understand pregnancy disorders

Scientists have grown 'mini-placentas' in a lab to better understand pre-eclampsia and other pregnancy disorders, ITV News Health Reporter Katie Fenton reports

Scientists have grown "mini-placentas" in a lab to better understand pre-eclampsia and other pregnancy disorders.

The study has been used to see how a placenta develops and interacts with the inner lining of the womb - it has also proven that it is possible to experiment on a developing human placenta, rather than just observe specimens.

Professor Ashley Moffett from the Department of Pathology at the University of Cambridge said: “Most of the major disorders of pregnancy – pre-eclampsia, still birth, growth restriction, for example – depend on failings in the way the placenta develops in the first few weeks.

"This is a process that is incredibly difficult to study – the period after implantation, when the placenta embeds itself into the endometrium, is often described as a ‘black box of human development’.

“Over the past few years, many scientists – including several at Cambridge – have developed embryo-like models to help us understand early pre-implantation development. But further development is impeded because we understand so little about the interactions between the placenta and the uterus.”

 What is a pre-eclampsia?

Pre-eclampsia is a condition that affects some pregnant women, usually during the second half of pregnancy (from 20 weeks) or soon after their baby is delivered.

If it is left untreated it can affect both the mother and the baby, sometimes resulting in babies being born prematurely.

Early signs of pre-eclampsia include having high blood pressure (hypertension) and protein in your urine (proteinuria). 

In some cases, further symptoms can develop, including severe headaches, vision problems, such as blurring or flashing, pain just below the ribs, vomiting and sudden swelling of the face, hands or feet.

A successful pregnancy depends on a number of interactions between the mother's uterus and cells.

When these interactions do not work properly, they can lead to complications, such as pre-eclampsia, a condition that causes high blood pressure during pregnancy.

Professor Moffett and colleagues at the Friedrich Miescher Institute, Switzerland, and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Cambridge, have used ‘mini-placentas’ – a cellular model of the early stages of the placenta – to provide a window into early pregnancy and help improve our understanding of reproductive disorders.

Dr Margherita Turco, from the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Switzerland and co-lead of this work, added: “Despite affecting millions of women a year worldwide, we still understand very little about pre-eclampsia. Women usually present with pre-eclampsia at the end of pregnancy, but really to understand it – to predict it and prevent it – we have to look at what's happening in the first few weeks.

“Using ‘mini-placentas’, we can do just that, providing clues as to how and why pre-eclampsia occurs. This has helped us unpick some of the key processes that we should now focus on far more. It shows the power of basic science in helping us understand our fundamental biology, something that we hope will one day make a major difference to the health of mothers and their babies.” 

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