The importance of studying the placenta


It makes logical, intellectual sense that the placenta, an organ that is so integrally involved in pregnancy, will be of such great importance to the well-being, sustenance, and growth and development of the fetus. After all, the placental compartment and fetal compartment have the same origin early in embryogenesis, and the placenta is the sole source of nutrients and oxygen for the fetus.

However, the placenta has been extraordinarily poorly understood. Much of medicine has regarded the placenta like the appendix – an organ that may be easily discarded. We know too little about its functions and its biology. We do not even know whether there is a minimum amount of placenta that’s necessary for fetal health.

Dr. E. Albert Reece

Dr. E. Albert Reece

Over the years, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has placed an emphasis on certain key areas of study through efforts such as the Human Genome Project, the BRAIN Initiative, and the Cancer Moonshot. Such efforts involve sustained, fundamental research and usually lead to significant findings and subsequent application of the findings.

It is exciting to know that the NIH has launched its Human Placenta Project in an effort to better understand the biology of the placenta and to elucidate its functions. The technology that is employed will play an adjunctive role.

Fortunately, over the years various investigators have studied the placenta using ultrasound, color Doppler technology, and other techniques, and have reported important findings. The work of pathologist Carolyn M. Salafia, MD, and others has called attention to the importance of the shape and vasculature of the placenta, as well as blood flow.

To bring us up to date, as the NIH’s Human Placenta Project proceeds, I have asked Dr. Salafia to provide us with a review discussion of our current knowledge and its implications. Dr. Salafia specializes in reproductive and developmental pathology and reviews thousands of placentas each year through her work with various hospitals and as head of the Placental Modulation Laboratory at the Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities in Staten Island, N.Y.

Dr. Reece, who specializes in maternal-fetal medicine, is vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, as well as the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and dean of the school of medicine. Dr. Reece said he had no relevant financial disclosures. He is the medical editor of this column. Contact him at [email protected].

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