The Placenta - Our Least Understood Organ - Seeker's Thoughts

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The Placenta - Our Least Understood Organ


The Placenta - Our Least Understood Organ

The placenta provides your baby with oxygen, nutrients and other essential substances necessary for growth. In addition, it removes waste products, passes along immunity between mother and child, and regulates pregnancy hormones.


Researchers are making advances in understanding the structure and function of placentas. But much remains unexplored; we may soon witness a groundbreaking: understanding real-time gene expression during gestation as a key indicator.


It’s a Container


The placenta can sometimes seem like the Rodney Dangerfield of organs; it doesn't get enough recognition as one of its primary roles is influencing how a fetus grows and will ultimately develop as an individual. But this organ plays an integral part in lifelong health for fetuses by providing oxygen, nutrients, waste removal services and immune protection - not to mention acting as an administrative hub that must function smoothly during gestation for success.


Key among these tasks is providing oxygen and nutrients from mother's blood directly to fetus via placental villi, which connect the mother's uterine vessels called spiral arteries with 80 to 100 of fetal blood vessels that connect fetuses to maternal blood for pick up of oxygen and wastes removal.


 To do so, placenta invades 80 to 100 spiral arteries before producing 32 miles of fingerlike projections called placental villi that bring maternal and fetal blood into contact to exchange oxygen, nutrients and wastes exchange between maternal blood streams to pick up and exchange oxygen/nutrients from/mamong the mother-fetuses while eliminating wastes back out from within both mother and mother blood systems for pick up/drop off/drop off.


Scientists are only just beginning to grasp all its intricate details. Recently, for instance, researchers discovered that placenta contains bacteria which may help shape a baby's immune system over the course of its lifetime - this discovery was made after analyzing part of an extracted placenta taken from a woman after giving birth.


Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are making strides toward answering this vexing question by developing a flash-drive-sized lab instrument known as "Placenta-on-a-Chip." The microfluidic channels on either side of a layer of human cells mimicking placental biology provide vital clues.


The team's goal is to identify metabolic changes caused by placenta dysfunction, leading to preterm birth. They intend to use their newly developed tool along with others being created for study of lung and intestinal tissues to model and test treatment or prevention methods of such abnormalities.


At birth, hospitals usually dispose of the placenta as medical waste or biohazard and discard it; but some women choose to save it and freeze it for use later as part of an encapsulation or memento experience for their child(ren). If you want to follow suit, hospitals typically provide biohazard bags and boxes, with enough room for ice in a cooler to fit it securely inside a 12"x12" container.


It’s a Filter


The placenta is an amazing organ with numerous responsibilities. It supplies oxygen and nutrients for baby, removes carbon dioxide and waste products from mom, produces hormones to promote gestation, passes immunity from mother to child and regulates mother blood pressure - it truly plays an integral part in both pregnanct women's health, as well as lifelong wellbeing.


Scientists agree that the primary function of the placenta is physiological exchange - providing oxygen and nutrients to her baby while filtering carbon dioxide and waste out of her bloodstream. But researchers are increasingly realizing that its functions go far beyond being simply a placenta-shaped container for her fetus.


Early pregnancy begins when a clump of cells known as a blastocyst implants into the wall of a mother's uterus seven to 10 days post conception, genetically half from both parents. At around the same time, another layer of cells known as placenta begins forming which becomes several inches long over time.


Placentas have two sides; one adheres directly to the uterus prior to delivery and looks like a blood-saturated sponge; while its opposite face - facing baby and filled with blood vessels that traverse umbilical cord. At full term gestation, approximately 20 ounces of mom's blood pass through placenta every minute


But this doesn't make the placenta an "sterile" environment; rather, it contains its own diverse community of bacteria which scientists have begun studying. 


Both Baylor University and Cambridge groups employed deep metagenomics techniques to explore all of the bacteria present in placenta samples; Baylor went further by employing 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing to search more specifically for specific kinds of microbes.


No team found evidence to show that a healthy placenta microbiome was essential to the wellbeing of the fetus; however, Cambridge team did discover that 5 percent of their placentas contained Streptococcus agalactiae bacteria commonly associated with humans, showing even prepping samples for analysis can introduce environmental microbes into them.


It’s a Muscle


A vital and mysterious organ in our bodies, the placenta serves an indispensable purpose: providing oxygen and nutrition to an embryo while clearing away waste products on both sides. Furthermore, its functions as a control center regulate all aspects of pregnancy to produce healthy babies while giving moms peace of mind during gestation.


After fertilization occurs, specialized cells called trophoblasts begin to emerge on the fertilized embryo and burrow deep into its mother's uterus wall, where they differentiate into various tissues; some form the epithelial membrane that covers a placenta while stromal cells help give its structure and vascular network.


These stromal cells contain high concentrations of the protein fibronectin, which allows blood vessels to cling together. Oxygenated maternal blood passes directly from mother to fetus while deoxygenated fetal blood returns through placenta back into mother through umbilical cord.


Researchers from Cedars-Sinai made an unexpected and remarkable discovery: these fibronectin-rich stromal cells contain mesenchymal progenitor cells capable of creating muscles. When placed in a lab environment, these mesenchymal progenitor cell-derived myogenic cells migrated into dystrophic muscle and rejuvenated its myofibers while also encouraging angiogenesis, the formation of new blood vessels in muscle.


Placental cell networks play a pivotal role in its metabolic and endocrine functions. They help convert nutrients to energy for use by the baby during development, exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide exchanges, produce human placental lactogen (hPL), soluble fms-like tyrosine kinase 1 (sFlt-1), placental growth factor production as well as immunological functions that protect against pathogens while encouraging maternal-fetal tolerance.


Although the placenta has existed for millennia, only recently have its mysteries been unlocked by researchers. New imaging techniques may provide new opportunities to monitor early pregnancy placenta development and spot any complications before they cause complications for both mother and fetus. It is an exciting time for scientists studying the placenta which could improve fetal outcomes as well as reduce maternal morbidity and mortality rates.


It’s a Network


Placentas are complex organs that serve a vital purpose: connecting mother and fetus during gestation. However, researchers still know little about how it functions - something which is quickly changing.


Placentae are indispensable structures that act as an interface between mother's and fetus' bloodstreams, transporting nutrients and oxygen from mother to fetus and carbon dioxide and waste from fetus back through. Since these bloodstreams never meet, a barrier must be created between them that allows transfer across this interface while still permitting flow of substances across it.


Pennsylvania scientists are investigating how this strange membrane works by employing "organ-on-a-chip," an innovative technique which allows researchers to test living human organs without risking real people's lives. 


Already this technology has given us working models of the heart and gut which should enable us to better understand conditions like cardiovascular disease, obesity and inflammatory bowel diseases.


Penn researchers hope to use technology like this to increase knowledge about the placenta, which they view as integral for understanding miscarriage, preeclampsia, low birth weight and infant mortality during gestation. Furthermore, they're investigating whether its microbiome has any bearing on how an unborn fetus develops its immune system as well as potential future health outcomes.


As part of their effort to unlock the mysteries of the placenta, researchers are studying specific molecules found in larger amounts in the placesntas of women who experience problems like preeclampsia or intrauterine growth restriction. 


Their goal is to develop more accurate methods of detecting these abnormalities during early gestation and, hopefully, preventing future instances from ever happening at all.


Successful pregnancies rely on having a healthy placenta. Although its function is complex, most women's placentas perform admirably during gestation.


 But in rare cases it fails to develop or function normally, potentially placing the fetus at risk for developmental delays, cerebral palsy and other serious complications as well as even death. Unfortunately, the reason is unknown but scientists hope that by studying its chemistry more deeply they'll eventually uncover clues that enable diagnosis and treatment for such dangerous anomalies.

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