|NICHD’s Dr. Alan Guttmacher (l) and Dr. Cathy Spong discuss the Human Placenta Project.
“The placenta is the Rodney Dangerfield of organs—it gets no respect,” said Dr. Diana Bianchi, executive director, Mother Infant Research Institute and vice chair for research and academic affairs, Tufts University School of Medicine. Although she said it jokingly, her sentiment was sincere and shared by many of the nearly 80 researchers who attended the Human Placenta Project workshop held recently by NICHD.
The occasion was the first time that scientists from different fields marshalled forces to better understand the least studied, and arguably one of the most important, of all human organs—the placenta. Their goal? To improve ways to provide real-time assessment of placental development and function in hopes of finding interventions to improve the health of mothers and their children.
“Throughout fetal development, the placenta functions both as a unique agent of human symbiosis and as the fetal renal, cardiac, respiratory, hepatic, gastrointestinal, endocrine and immune systems. Yet, our understanding of the human placenta is limited,” said NICHD director Dr. Alan Guttmacher. “This imbalance between level of biological importance and level of our current understanding presents us with a remarkable scientific opportunity.”
To augment expertise from the OB-GYN and pediatric arenas, NICHD also invited bioengineers, imaging specialists and data scientists. “Bringing together experts from many different disciplines will give us important information on the tools and methods available to study the placenta in real time—something that has not been done in the past,” said Dr. Cathy Spong, director of NICHD’s Division of Extramural Research.
In fact, three objectives of the workshop revolved around the topic of how to perform research without harming the mother, placenta or baby, including how best to: improve current methods and develop new technologies for real-time assessment of placental development; apply these technologies to understand and monitor placental development and function in normal and abnormal pregnancies; and develop and evaluate non-invasive markers for prediction of adverse pregnancy outcomes.
“It’s a perfect time for this research to be happening,” said Dr. Joe Leigh Simpson, senior vice president for research and global programs, March of Dimes Foundation. “Ten to 15 years ago, we didn’t have the technology. Now we do and it will get better as we move forward. These dazzling advancements will make all the difference in our understanding of the placenta in real time and how it impacts health.”
Although the “what” to study and the “how” to do it are important, researchers agreed that the “why” is what will resonate for other scientists and the public at large. From understanding the placenta’s role in long-term health and disease to developing interventions to prevent abnormal placental development—and hence improve pregnancy outcomes—scientists believe collaborative research can unlock new scientific and technological advances.
“It’s about collaboration. Collaboration with other NIH institutes, collaboration with our universities, collaboration with industry. If this were easy, it would already have been done. But is it worth it? Absolutely. As Dr. Burton [Graham Burton, director, Centre for Trophoblast Research at Cambridge] said, ‘The placenta is the platform of life,’” said Guttmacher.