‘Placenta-On-a-Chip’ May Offer Insights on Neonatal Disease

New cutting-edge technology allows scientists to recreate human organs on microchips.New cutting-edge technology allows scientists to recreate human organs on microchips.

In an effort to understand the effects of malaria on unborn babies, researchers at Florida Atlantic University have developed an artificial maternal-fetal interface called “Placenta-On-a-Chip.” If successful, this technological advance will allow scientists to research other neonatal diseases without using a fetus.

Organs-on-Chips (OOC) technology was developed in 2015 by engineers from Harvard’s Wyss Institute.  These chips are important because they allow scientists to experiment without having to use real-life human subjects or fetal tissue.

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“There are a number of challenges in studying the biology of the human placenta in its natural form or in situ because of ethical reasons as well as accessibility,” said Sarah Du, Ph.D., principal investigator of the grant. “That is why there is such a great need for a placental model that can be used for research purposes.”

Placenta-On-a-Chip would not have been possible without the collaboration of two scientists who specialize in very distinct fields.  Dr. Sarah Du is an assistant professor in the Department of Ocean and Mechanical Engineering in FAU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. Her co-investigator is Dr. Andrew Oleinikov, associate professor of biomedical science in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine.

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Together, the two scientists came up with the Placenta-On-a-Chip device that will simulate blood flow and will mimic a malaria infected placenta.  They have received a two-year, $400,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for their project.  The first year of the study will examine the effects of malaria on the mother.  Year two will focus on the effects of malaria on the fetus.

Malaria, a parasitic disease transmitted by infected mosquitos, is especially dangerous for pregnant women.  In 2015 there were approximately 212 million cases of malaria throughout the world and 429,000 malaria deaths.

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