The placenta is a fascinating and versatile organ which connects fetus to mother during the forty weeks of pregnancy. It is a temporary organ which brings oxygen and nutrients to the fetus during pregnancy and allows for removal of waste and other toxic substances. It is the “elastic clause” of organs, so to speak, due to the fact that it serves as many organs for the price of one! The placenta acts as the kidneys, the liver, the lungs, the endocrine system, the gastrointestinal system, and the immune system. The hormones produced by the placenta promote fetal development and maintenance of the pregnancy. In addition, the placenta protects the fetus from the immune system of the mother (which perceives the fetus as a foreign object). If we women thought that we were good at multitasking, be even more impressed with your placenta’s ability to do so!
The health of the placenta plays a large role in the health of the developing fetus. Medical problems such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, stillbirth, and premature labor and deliver may occur when placental problems exist. In addition, lifelong health of both mother and child are influenced by the placenta. To date, not much is known regarding what actually constitutes a “normal placenta” and how it actually functions. According to Dr. Diana Bianchi (Executive Director, Mother Infant Research Institute, Tufts Medical Center), the placenta is “the Rodney Dangerfield of organs. It doesn’t get respect. It gets thrown out at the end of pregnancy.” The only research that we have involves studying the placenta AFTER delivery, as opposed to during pregnancy itself.
Fortunately, the National Institute of Health (NIH) has initiated the Human Placenta Project, a $41.5 million project which has multiple goals. Several of these goals include developing improved technology to analyze placental development during pregnancy and the creation of non-invasive methods to predict poor pregnancy outcomes. Furthermore, the project is aimed at better understanding the connection between placental health with long term maternal and fetal health, and researchers seek to develop interventions in the case of poor predicted placental and fetal outcomes. Hopefully, these research objectives will be achieved in order to improve maternal and fetal outcomes.
For more information on the Human Placenta Project, please watch the following short YouTube video from the NIH: http://youtu.be/MGhGkMM9-B0.