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The human placenta is the focus of a new NIH initiative.

The human placenta is the focus of a new NIH initiative.

John Bavosi/Science Photo Library/Corbis

NIH sets aside more than $40 million for study of human placenta

The Human Placenta Project, launched last year by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) despite uncertainty over how much money would back in the effort, has just received a whopping $41.5 million in 2015 to study the vital mass of tissue that sustains a developing fetus.

The placenta carries nutrients and oxygen to a fetus from its mother’s bloodstream and removes waste; problems with its performance may contribute to health concerns ranging from preterm birth to adult diabetes. Yet it is the least understood human organ, according to Alan Guttmacher, director of NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Last year, Science reported on a NICHD workshop where planning began for a Human Placenta Project that would aim to monitor the placenta during a woman’s pregnancy, using new imaging approaches, tests for fetal molecules shed into a mother’s blood, and other tools.

That plan is reflected in the title of a 26 February request for grant applications, from NICHD and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), that calls for “Paradigm-Shifting Innovations” in how to assess the human placenta. One objective is to learn how environmental factors such as a mother’s diet and exposure to pollutants affect the placenta. The $41.5 million will support eight to nine awards lasting up to 4 years.

The new funding commitment for the project comes on top of about $4.5 million in 2015 that NICHD and NIBIB have already set aside for research on tools to study the placenta. An NIH representative says that some of the additional $41.5 million could come from leftover funding from the National Children’s Study (NCS), a controversial plan to follow the health of 100,000 children for 21 years that NIH canceled in December. NIH is now looking for ways to spend $140 million that Congress appropriated for the NCS in 2015 on related studies.