Uncovering the Hidden Wonders of the Placenta: New Stowers Research Reveals What Makes This Vital Organ So Special

From supporting healthy fetus development to having an exact lifespan, the placenta plays a critical role in pregnancy. Now, scientists at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research believe that exploring the placenta’s roles and capacities may offer valuable insight into enhancing pregnancy outcomes. Who knows, with continued study, we may one day unlock the placenta’s full potential!

The recent study published in Development sheds light on an intriguing property of the cells forming the placenta. This innovative finding illuminates how placental cells are able to support a developing embryo by performing functional and physical roles of utmost importance.

“Following birth, the placenta is often tossed in the medical wastebin,” explained Stowers Investigator Jennifer Gerton, Ph.D. “This makes it the most overlooked, undervalued, and understudied organ in reproductive science.”

A new study conducted on mice by former Postdoctoral Researcher Vijay Singh, Ph.D. from the Gerton Lab has revealed previously unknown insights into the incredible ways in which the placenta plays a role in healthy human pregnancies.

Placental cells are fascinating for their impressive size and metabolic activity. These cells serve as a protective layer for the baby, while allowing essential nutrients and hormones to be exchanged between mom and baby. With this new research, researchers and clinicians can now gain a deeper understanding the intricate ways that the placenta helps ensure a successful birth.

Researchers have identified a distinct feature of placental cells that originates from a modified cell cycle. Normally cells divide and the chromosomes are duplicated and then split between the two new cells. With placental cells, however, the cell does not divide after replication of chromosomes and instead retains an entire extra chromosomal set.

This cycle can be repeated until the placental cells grow to giant sizes with hundreds of chromosome copies, a phenomenon known as polyploidy. This discovery sheds light on the importance of this specialized organ and the potential to use this knowledge to explore how conditions like birth defects and premature births are caused.

The placenta is an integral organ in successful pregnancy, performing essential functions such as hormone and blood cell production, nutrient transport from mother to fetus, and protecting the developing embryo from being rejected by the mother’s immune system. Now, researchers have uncovered an unexpected aspect of the placenta–many of its cells are polyploid.

This means that the cells have multiple copies of the genome which creates a barrier between the embryo and mother, making the placenta one of the most polyploid organs found in a pregnant mouse. Polyploidy in placental cells is critical for normal development of the placenta, and problems with the placenta may lead to complications such as preeclampsia, restricted fetal growth, preterm birth, or even fetal death.

Many parents may not think to donate their placentas for scientific research, which can produce great benefits for humanity. But research conducted by a team at Rutgers University found that a single gene controls polyploidy, the modified cell cycle that helps the placenta to support a healthy pregnancy. When made to fail, this gene (named Myc) can cause risky outcomes during gestation, and by studying human placentas, we can learn more about preventing them. Ultimately, donating placentas for research can help us unlock the secrets of successful pregnancies and parenthood.

“We might learn a lot if more attention is paid to the placenta which can be the cause of disease in a baby,” said Gerton. “I feel like generally as scientists and as a society, we’re simply not giving the placenta its due consideration.”

About the Stowers Institute for Medical Research

Since its founding in 1994, the Stowers Institute for Medical Research has been devoted to unlocking the mysteries of life and improving human health through path-breaking research. Funded by a generous donation from American Century Investments founder Jim Stowers and his wife, Virginia, the non-profit institute is driven to discover innovative treatments and cures for diseases and ultimately improve the quality of life.

The Institute is home to 20 diverse, independent research programs. Representing 500 members, the Institute boasts an impressive 370 scientific staff including principal investigators, technology center directors, postdoctoral scientists, graduate students and technical support staff. Here, researchers explore new horizons in their respective fields and push the boundaries of what is possible.

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