A world-first miniature placenta grown in the lab from stem cells could revolutionise research into life-threatening conditions in pregnancy.

Scientists at Dundee University have created the three-dimensional iPlacenta on chips roughly the size of a phone SIM card.

They use stem cells from human skin which are then tweaked to develop into placenta cells.

The technology will enable researchers for the first time to test the effects of various drugs, toxins and particles such as microplastics on cell lines which mimic the organ, without putting the mother or foetus at risk.

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The team hope that it will lead to breakthroughs for currently untreatable conditions such as intra-uterine growth restriction or pre-eclampsia, which causes dangerously high blood pressure in mothers during pregnancy and after labour.

It is estimated to affect around one in 25 pregnancies.

At present, most research into the placenta is done using tissue collected following birth, or from cell lines grown from cancer cells - but neither is ideal.

The Herald:

Dr Colin Murdoch, who led the four-year project, said: "Placenta act similarly to cancerous cells because the placenta has to invade into the maternal blood system so for a long time those cell lines have been used to mimic the placenta, but it isn't the best.

"A lot of research is also done on placenta taken from humans, but that's at delivery and the placenta at delivery is very different from the placenta in those early stages where it's really important for development. That's where diseases happen.

"What we've done with the stem cells is turn them into placenta cells so that we can replicate those early stages.

"That gives us a really nice ability to be able to test medicines at that same stage or to look at how disease progresses in those early stages."

He added: “Research in pregnancy is not as far forward as research into other areas of medical science.

"We still know relatively little about pre-eclampsia, despite its potential to affect every pregnancy."

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The placenta - which forms temporarily in the uterus during pregnancy - is one of the least studied organs in medical science.

It allows nutrients to pass from the mother to the foetus and transports waste back into the mother’s bloodstream.

It also offers protection to the unborn baby against bacteria, though viruses can still be transmitted.

However, little is known about the workings of the placenta, and clinical drug trials are extremely unlikely to enrol women while pregnant.

Aspirin and early deliveries are among the limited treatments offered to mothers if something goes wrong.

The Herald: The micro placentas are grown on SIM card-style chips, with around 60 chips per platformThe micro placentas are grown on SIM card-style chips, with around 60 chips per platform (Image: Dundee University)

In 2019, Dr Murdoch and his team began working with Dutch 3D tissue model experts, MIMETAS, to create the iPlacenta.

The placenta cells were grown on SIM-sized chips covering a platform known as the OrganoPlate.

Each plate holds around 60 chips, and each chip contains three "lanes" which form into 3D tubes covered by the placenta cells.

These act as micro placentas.

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Scientists can then add drugs or other substances into one lane to measure whether or not it crosses the maternal placenta barrier, or disrupts placenta function.

Those which do would be more likely to have an effect on the developing foetus.

Dr Murdoch is now seeking funding to begin trialling the device in medical research.

He is also keen to use it to examine how well microplastics or toxins such as diesel particles can cross the maternal placenta, and how this could be stopped.

The Herald: Dr Colin MurdochDr Colin Murdoch (Image: Dundee University)

“Just a tiny fraction of the most common drugs used by women in pregnancy have excellent safety data behind them,” he said.

“However, iPlacenta can be utilised by the pharmaceutical industry to research the interaction between drugs and the placenta.

"This allows drug companies to look at the organ in a more physiological format and could have a potentially transformative impact on medical care for pregnant women.”

Gwanaëlle Rabussier, a scientist at MIMETAS, said: “Working on this project has been exciting as it opens tremendous opportunities for unravelling placental mysteries associated with placental barrier drug transfer and pathologies such as pre-eclampsia.

"This contribution to enhancing women’s health is a tremendous source of pride for us.”