A bunch of devices mimicking the placenta at various stages of pregnancy can help in drug discovery, study of toxicity of chemicals like caffeine, and understanding the effects of conditions such as preeclampsia and diabetes mellitus during pregnancy.
In pregnancy, the placenta shields the baby from harmful drugs and chemicals. But some can still cross this barrier and cause harm to the baby in the womb. Thus, pregnant women are not given most medications and they continue to suffer. Determining which medicines can be given during pregnancy that would not cross the placenta is a daunting task. Animal studies (mostly on mice) don't provide definitive answers due to differences between human and mouse placentas. As a result, the number of medicines declared safe for pregnant women is low and marking new medicines that come into the market as “pregnancy safe” is a challenge.
Current techniques for studying the placenta and its conditions are very few and consist of systems that do not resemble the human placenta. Some of them involve time consuming traditional cell culture methods on tissue culture plates or the sacrifice of mice. Hence, it is required to build a better model which mimics the human placental structure and functions.
To bridge this gap, researchers at IIT Bombay and ICMR-NIRRCH-, Mumbai, led by Prof. Abhijit Majumder, Prof. Debjani Paul, and Dr. Deepak Modi, have developed devices called placenta-on-a-chip (POC). They have used microfluidic technology which can integrate processes, to create an environment that represents basic organ structure and functions of the placenta. While a few placenta-on-chip devices exist, these do not mimic various stages of pregnancy hence limiting their utility in testing the safety of drugs under these conditions. The placenta in a lab dish developed by the team allows different cells to interact with each other, incorporate mechanical properties and mimic the blood flow, which closely resembles the in-vivo condition. Among various available POC models, these devices are more suitable for probing placental development as well as diseases caused due to defects in the placenta. Also, patient-specific sample screening will be possible for personalised medicine.
The solution was conceived with the experience of Professor Majumdar in making microfluidic devices and the expertise of Dr Modi in understanding the placenta.
With support from IMPRINT II C of Science, Engineering, Research Board (SERB), Prof Majumder’s team designed and made the devices at IIT-Bombay. They were fabricated using sophisticated techniques such as photolithography, soft lithography, and handcrafted designs using biopsy punches. In these devices, Dr Modi’s team grew different cells found in the placenta in a manner they are seen in the actual placenta.
Multiple devices were developed in this collaboration each dedicated to various studies such as embryo implantation, placental barrier function, placental cell migration, drug testing and so on. Both labs rigrously tested if the devices actually do the things an actual placenta is supposed to do. The devices are now ready for testing different drugs and medicines to for being utilized by the pharma industry.
The placenta-on-chip will enable early detection of adverse conditions and allows researchers and healthcare professionals to observe, study, and identify potential issues that may arise during pregnancy.
Placenta-On-Chip technology offers novel advancements in making pregnancies safe. It enables the study of placental function, detection of complications, personalized medicine, and the development of new therapies. This will lessen the need for animal use and revolutionize the pharma industry to enhance the lives of countless people worldwide. Patent filing is under process for this technology that offers benefits to both the industry and academia.