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Healthy Pregnancy

The Mystery and Miracle of the Placenta

illustration showing location of placenta in womb

Understanding its role in health and disease

The Human Placenta Project is a long-term research initiative to develop new ways to study the placenta, the organ in a woman’s uterus that nourishes and maintains the fetus during pregnancy. Dr. David Weinberg, the project lead, says his work has been a personal calling. The Human Placenta Project was launched in 2014 by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

In 1991, Weinberg was relieved and happy when son Evan was born healthy after a scare during Cynthia’s pregnancy.
Photo: David Weinberg

“After a simple first pregnancy, my wife Cynthia and I thought we were in for an easy second pregnancy,” says Weinberg.

“She began bleeding at about 20 weeks. We were scared and fully unprepared.” That was 25 years ago.

“We Were Worried”

“Of course, we were worried that our baby would not survive or would have long-term health problems,” continues Weinberg. “I also worried about Cynthia, whether her life was at risk.”

Bleeding during the second trimester of pregnancy has many causes, including problems with the placenta, early delivery, infection, or cancer. “Our doctor couldn’t tell us why she was bleeding, the ultrasound didn’t show anything wrong, and the tests turned up negative,” continues Weinberg. “But that feeling of uncertainty and helplessness is one I think back on and can feel again as if it were yesterday.”

Drawn to Placenta Research

This experience helped lay the foundation for Weinberg’s current role as the project lead for NICHD’s Human Placenta Project (HPP), which aims to bring together researchers from several different disciplines to improve the understanding of the placenta and its role in health and disease.

“The placenta influences not just the health of a mother and her baby during pregnancy, but also the lifelong health of both.”
— Catherine Spong, MD, acting director, NICHD

“I see many times where pregnancy outcomes go poorly because the placenta hasn’t formed correctly,” says Catherine Spong, MD, acting director of NICHD. “Yet we still don’t have all the tools we need to understand why that happens. We want to make placenta outcomes better so pregnancy outcomes will be better.”

The mystery and miracle of placenta development is fascinating. “The placenta is perhaps the least understood human organ, even though it’s one of the most important,” Spong says. “It influences not just the health of a mother and her baby during pregnancy, but also the lifelong health of both.”

Until birth, the placenta provides the fetus with nutrients and acts as its lungs, kidneys, liver, and endocrine system (hormones), and it is essential for its immune defense. It is the platform for life.

In 2014, Weinberg celebrated Evan’s college graduation with wife, Cynthia, and son, Michael.

An Inside Look

Past studies of the placenta have focused on the organ after delivery because it has been challenging to access during pregnancy. The HPP aims to look at safe and non-invasive technologies that might someday allow researchers to study the placenta during pregnancy, while it’s still doing its job. “The goal is to monitor the placenta in real time so we can understand how it develops and functions,” Weinberg says.

Funding for the project currently supports 19 projects around the country, involving diverse research teams with expertise in imaging, biotechnology, obstetrics, placental biology, and other fields.

“I expect that what we learn will benefit other areas of science and medicine as well,” Weinberg says.

Read More "Healthy Pregnancy" Articles

The Mystery and Miracle of the Placenta / Steps for Maintaining Baby’s Health

Fall 2016 Issue: Volume 11 Number 3 Page 20-21