The Current

New project looks at 'the most important organ that none of us have': the placenta

The study of the placenta before birth has always been hampered by the dangers that could be posed to the fetus. Now, a U.S. group is funding ways to study the organ safely during development, and researchers say it could mean healthier pregnancies.

The Human Placenta Project invested $46 million US to non-invasively study the organ

Due to concerns for the fetus, it is 'very, very difficult' to study the placenta during development, said researcher Ashley Moffett. (Shutterstock)

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Scientists are trying to find new ways to study the placenta, in the hopes that understanding it better could prevent problems in pregnancy.

"We just know so little about it and yet it's so essential for life," said Charles McKenzie, an associate professor of medical biophysics at Western University.

Charles McKenzie calls the placenta 'the most important organ that none of us have.' (Submitted by Charles McKenzie)

"This is an organ that if it fails, results in tragic consequences: babies that are too small, that have developmental delays, or in the worst cases, the fetus dies and we have a stillbirth," he told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"I refer to it as the most important organ that none of us have."

Most research on the placenta has focused on the organ after delivery. But the Human Placenta Project — funded by the National Institute of Health in the U.S. — has invested $46 million US to find ways to non-invasively study the placenta during development.

McKenzie works with one of several Canadian research groups funded by the project; his team received $2 million to develop new MRI technology to evaluate how the placenta uses energy and provides it to the fetus.

Challenges studying the organ

Part of the reason so little is known about the organ is that placentas are different in every animal, says Ashley Moffett, a professor of reproductive immunology at the University of Cambridge.

Unlike the heart or kidneys, the results of animal studies on the placenta can't be applied to human research, she explained to Tremonti. 

Its vital importance to a baby's development also means it's "very, very difficult, for logistical and ethical reasons" to access it for study during pregnancy, she said. 

Problems with the placenta can lead to pre-eclampsia — a pregnancy complication marked by high blood pressure — fetal growth restriction, and unexplained stillbirth.

Statistics Canada recorded 3,159 stillbirths in Canada in 2017, continuing an upward trend observed since 2000.

McKenzie hopes that by learning more "about how this works and developing new diagnostic techniques, we're going to be able to start to put a dent in that problem."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Idella Sturino.


  • An earlier version of this story stated that Charles McKenzie works with one of two Canadian research groups funded by the Human Placenta Project. In fact, there are more than two groups funded by the project.
    Jan 03, 2019 5:35 PM ET