Scientists have 3D printed an artificial placenta model that very closely resembles the natural organ, an advance that may help better understand how it affects babies' growth.
The placenta ensures the exchange of important substances between the mother and her unborn child, whilst simultaneously blocking other substances from passing through.
Until now, it has not been fully understood what the permeability of the placenta depends on. It is incredibly difficult to investigate its function in humans directly.
Researchers from Vienna University of Technology (TU Vienna) in Austria used a specially developed femtosecond laser-based 3D printing process to produce an artificial placenta model that very closely resembles the natural organ.
The process makes it possible to produce customised hydrogel membranes directly within microfluidic chips, which are then populated with placenta cells.
This means it is now possible to provide clarity in some vital research issues, such as the exchange of glucose between mother and child.
"The transport of substances through biological membranes plays an important role in various areas of medicine," said Aleksandr Ovsianikov of TU Wien.
"These include the blood-brain barrier, ingestion of food in the stomach and intestine, and also the placenta," said Ovsianikov.
There are, for example, numerous studies showing that diseases in the mother such as diabetes can have an impact on the unborn child. High blood pressure can also affect the transport of substances to the foetus.
Until now, however, it has been almost impossible to investigate the way in which the many parameters involved interact in such cases.
Researchers at TU Wien are therefore working on replicating organ structures on compact chips in order to investigate important aspects of their function under controlled conditions.
"Our chip consists of two areas - one represents the foetus, the other the mother", said Denise Mandt, who worked on the project as part of her thesis.
"We use a special 3D printing process to produce a partition between them - the artificial placenta membrane," said Mandt.
"This 'organ-on-a-chip' technology is a revolutionary approach in biomedicine, which has generated a great deal of interest in clinical diagnostics, biotechnology and pharmaceutics in recent years," said Peter Ertl, head of the cell chip research group which played a key role in the project.
"The creation of human mini organs on a chip should allow the development of patient-specific therapeutic approaches, and also represents a vital method for replacing animal experiments," Ertl said.
On the chip, important biological parameters can be closely monitored, such as the pressure, temperature, geometry and nutrient supply of the mini organs, as well as the administration of medications. This makes it possible to accurately observe disease progression and cure rates.