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Vol. LXVII, No. 14
July 3, 2015

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Researchers Design Placenta-on-a-Chip to Better Understand Pregnancy

NIH researchers and their colleagues have developed a “placenta-on-a-chip” to study the inner workings of the human placenta and its role in pregnancy. The device was designed to imitate, on a micro-level, the structure and function of the placenta and model the transfer of nutrients from mother to fetus. This prototype is one of the latest in a series of organ-on-a-chip technologies developed to accelerate biomedical advances.

The study, published online in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine, was conducted by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from NICHD, the University of Pennsylvania, Wayne State University/Detroit Medical Center, Seoul National University and Asan Medical Center in South Korea.

“We believe that this technology may be used to address questions that are difficult to answer with current placenta model systems and help enable research on pregnancy and its complications,” said Dr. Roberto Romero, chief of NICHD’s Perinatology Research Branch and one of the study authors.

The placenta is a temporary organ that develops in pregnancy and is the major interface between mother and fetus. Among its many functions is to serve as a “crossing guard” for substances traveling between mother and fetus. The placenta helps nutrients and oxygen move to the fetus and helps waste products move away. At the same time, the placenta tries to stop harmful environmental exposures, such as bacteria, viruses and certain medications, from reaching the fetus. When the placenta doesn’t function correctly, the health of both mom and baby suffers.

New Role for Zebrafish: Larger Scale Gene Function Studies

NHGRI scientists are homing in on specific genes in zebrafish to help them better understand the function of genes in people.

NHGRI scientists are homing in on specific genes in zebrafish to help them better understand the function of genes in people.

Image: Darryl Leja, NHGRI

A relatively new method of targeting specific DNA sequences in zebrafish could dramatically accelerate the discovery of gene function and the identification of disease genes in humans, according to scientists at NHGRI.

In a study posted online on June 5 and to be published in the July 2015 issue of Genome Research, the researchers reported that the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR/Cas9 is 6 times more effective than other techniques at homing in on target genes and inserting or deleting specific sequences. The study also demonstrated that the CRISPR/Cas9 method can be used in a “multiplexed” fashion—that is, targeting and mutating multiple genes at the same time to determine their functions.

“It was shown about a year ago that CRISPR can knock out a gene quickly,” said Dr. Shawn Burgess, a senior investigator with NHGRI’s Translational and Functional Genomics Branch and head of the developmental genomics section. “What we have done is to establish an entire pipeline for knocking out many genes and testing their function quickly in a vertebrate model.” Researchers often try to determine the role of a gene by knocking it out—turning it off or removing it—and watching the potential effects on an organism lacking it.

Such larger scale—termed high-throughput—gene targeting in an animal model could be particularly useful for human genomic research. “This is a way to do that on a more cost-efficient and large scale,” Burgess said.

Health Disparities in U.S. Persist

According to a special issue of the American Journal of Public Health released June 5, significant disparities in the burden of disease and illness experienced by different groups persist. The articles highlight the need for greater understanding of the relationship between social, cultural, biological, behavioral, economic and neighborhood (place) factors when addressing health disparities.

In the three decades since the landmark Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Black and Minority Health (known as the Heckler Report) was released, advances in the country’s state of knowledge of the major factors underlying health disparities have led to a wealth of data about racial and ethnic minority health and health inequities. This groundbreaking report provided an assessment of the major factors contributing to the health status of blacks, Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and American Indians and Alaska Natives and elevated minority health to the national stage.

An editorial reports that NIMHD will embark on a bold vision that will challenge researchers to employ newer, innovative strategies and ideas to address and solve health disparities. Planning for this strategic visioning will include an iterative process to deliberate on fundamental issues that are critical to understanding health, such as the role of chronic stress, resilience and health outcomes.

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