The placenta is an important organ that develops in a mother’s uterus during pregnancy. It physically connects the fetus to the mother, providing oxygen and nutrients to the growing baby and removing waste products from the baby's blood. The placenta also acts as a filter, and prevents certain substances the mother’s blood from being transmitted to the fetus. During birth, once the umbilical cord is cut and the placenta is delivered, most placentas are discarded and are not routinely studied. But because scientists believe the placenta is so important to development and can provide important information about the environment of the fetus, the National Children’s Study (NCS) has collected, stored, and analyzed placentas from women in the Vanguard Study.
The purpose of the Vanguard Study is to identify the most efficient and cost-effective ways to conduct the Main Study. For this reason, NCS scientists tested different methods for placenta collection and conducted a careful analysis of placenta collection procedures in the Vanguard Study. This enabled them to understand the feasibility and costs of collecting placentas and the methods needed to ensure that samples are not compromised during collection, transport, and storage. Preliminary studies by the NCS demonstrated that collection and analyses of placentas is feasible. The researchers showed that they could measure levels of environmental chemicals in placental tissue. They also developed advanced methods for measuring the size, shape, and blood vessel patterns of placentas and showed that stem cells (cells with unique ability to divide and differentiate – that is, produce more of themselves and turn into different kinds of cells – some are used in transplantation treatment of certain diseases) can be recovered and grown from the material they collected. They were also able to extract and sequence delicate RNA from placental samples. Further analyses of their results continue and are expected to produce important additional scientific information. And most importantly, none of this could be done without the generous donation of time and samples by the pregnant women who volunteer to participate in the NCS so that their own pregnancies can advance our knowledge of child growth and development. We thank all of the participants in this and other study activities of the National Children’s Study Vanguard – without them, none of this research would be possible!