Organoids have landed in Austria: New 3D-printed placenta poised to solve life-threatening questions. But a little too late after Dutch trial runs amok.

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The News:

Austrian researchers have created a miniature 3D model of the human placenta, which could help us understand the causes of pregnancy complications.

The human placenta plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy pregnancy, supplying the fetus with the nutrients and hormones it needs to grow and protecting it from bacterial infections.

Researchers at the Medical University of Vienna (MUV) have now made a miniature replica called an organoid–of the human placenta that could help demonstrate different disorders, says

This is the first time a self-renewing organoid of the human placenta has been made, meaning stem cells in the organoid continue to form new tissue over time. And unlike previous placenta models, the organoids replicate the 3D structure of the human placenta and contain the three main types of cells that make up the placenta, called trophoblasts.

“No organoid system for the human placenta was available before,” said Martin Knöfler, who led one of the MUV research teams. “In the past, preparations of primary trophoblast cells didn’t survive longer than approximately one week.”

This particular organoid was the product of a collaborative project between research teams of Knöfler from MUV’s Department of Obstetrics and Paulina Latos from MUV’s Center for Anatomy and Cell Biology.

According to the researchers, their technology could be used for preclinical drug testing to study the effects of new treatments on the developing placenta. This could help identify potentially harmful effects of treatments women take during pregnancy.

However, before turning to drug testing, the researchers plan to use their organoid technology to reach a better understanding of how the placenta develops.

“For the moment it is important to understand how the specific trophoblast subtypes, with their different roles, develop, and how failures in that developmental program contribute to pregnancy disorders,” said Knöfler.

Using 3D tissue cultures to model entire organs is becoming a trend in biotech, since the technology can be an effective tool for studying healthy and diseased organ function. For example, another Austrian research team is working on mini brains that mimic the onset and development of brain cancer. Additionally, Dutch biotech MIMETAS BV (Leiden) is using its 3D printing technology to create 3D tissue cultures from a range of human organs, from kidney, liver and gut to brain and cancer tissue.

Steve’s Take

Yes, there’s quite a lot of advanced scientific/biologic research now maturing into “living” models of human organs, and it’s not just happening here in the good old USA. As a matter of fact, as the news item above points out, it was European researchers who have 3D printed the first, simplified, organic model of the human placenta, and hope to use it for studying the organ’s development.

Steve's Take: Accolades to the #European researchers who have 3D printed the first, simplified, organic model of the human #placenta, and hope to use it for studying the organ’s development. Click To Tweet

Where are the Pfizers, the Bristol-Myerses, the Novartisses in this search for important clues to life-threatening questions? Not in this ball park. Why?

Well, if you can sell a cancer treatment for roughly $450,000 per patient (think Keytruda, Opdivo and Kymria), private enterprise says you do that and not do hard research like that taking place at the Medical University of Vienna, whose organoid won’t fetch anything close to half a million dollars. There’s simply no blockbuster “market” for scads of 3D-printed placentas.

So, what transpired in Austria that’s so important but still flying so far under the radar?

In recent years, organoids have become more popular as a method for researching how organs react and respond to different drugs. In fact, researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have even connected tiny heart, liver, and lung organoids into a “body on a chip” to test different drug interactions. But the study of placentas isn’t as well-developed as the study of other organs, according to Inc.

This Vienna study, however, has several important firsts: it’s the first three-dimensional 3D-printed placenta, the first self-renewing 3D-printed placenta (which means that stem cells keep forming new tissue), and the first 3D-printed placenta to contain all three kinds of trophoblasts, the cells to make up the placenta.

What’s the point of all this focus on the placenta?

The need for a safe method of testing drugs on the developing placenta is imperative for not only the safety of the mother, but the developing child as well. Case in point? A Dutch study testing the effects of sildenafil on pregnant women was recently stopped after 11 babies died. Sildenafil, an erectile dysfunction treatment commonly sold as Viagra, was being tested to see if the drug can improve placental functions and assist underdeveloped babies in achieving proper growth.

Starting in 2015, the trial involved 183 mothers, 93 receiving sildenafil and 90 receiving a placebo. Results found that 11 of the babies whose mothers were treated with sildenafil died from excessive blood pressure in their lungs. Between 10 and 15 women are still waiting to find out if their child has been affected by the drug. It is feared that the drug caused high blood pressure in the lungs, leading to the babies receiving too little oxygen. There is nothing to suggest the trial was mishandled.

Bottom Line:

The placenta organoid could and should be used for drug testing such as in the Dutch trial above, to see what effects a drug like sildenafil might have on pregnant women.

“The fact that there were no self-renewing cell culture model systems available for the human placenta made it difficult, if not impossible, to study the causes of malfunctions,” said Knöfler. “Establishment of the placenta organoid system will improve this situation significantly and will help advancing drug development and consequently medical treatments for dangerous gestational disorders.”

But before they start testing drugs, the Austrian team wants to use their model to see how the placenta develops normally.

Drug companies like Pfizer must shudder at the thought that organoids like the one for placenta research could take a bite out of their sales. Admittedly, it appears they had nothing to do with recommending their product or a legal knock-off for use in the trial. But do you really test Viagra on pregnant women before knowing a lot more about most of the possibly dire consequences?

Let’s see: Viagra sales versus babies’ lives. Hmmm.

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