Human Placenta Project

Human Placenta Project logoThe placenta is arguably one of the most important organs in the body. It influences not just the health of a woman and her fetus during pregnancy, but also the lifelong health of both mother and child.

Despite its importance, we know little about this critical but temporary organ. NICHD’s Human Placenta Project (HPP) is a collaborative research effort to understand the role of the placenta in health and disease. HPP aims to develop new tools to study the organ in real time to learn how it develops and functions throughout pregnancy.

The success of this effort relies on the contributions of a broad range of scientists and clinicians, including experts in placental biology, as well as creative thinkers in biotechnology, imaging, data science, and other areas.

Check out the Fact Sheet: The Human Placenta Project (PDF - 143 KB) for more information. You can also learn more about how the placenta forms.

Since the project launched, NIH has awarded more than $50 million in HPP grants. All HPP-funded projects are listed in NIH RePORTER.

2017 Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAS)

Funding decisions related to these FOAs are ongoing.

  • Moving Beyond Standard Assessments: Applying Novel Tools to Assess Human Placental Structure and Function in Real Time

2016 FOAs and Funded Projects

  • Using '—Omics' to Define Human Placental Development and Function Across Pregnancy

2015 FOAs and Funded Projects

  • Developing Paradigm-Shifting Innovations for in vivo Human Placental Assessment in Response to Environmental Influences 
  • Novel Tools to Assess Human Placental Structure and Function
  • Projects funded through 2015 FOAs

FOAs for other types of placental research (non-HPP)

Watch HPP videos.

View a list of articles about the HPP.

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Q. Scientists have been studying the placenta for a long time. What's different about this research effort?
A. Past studies of the human placenta have focused largely on the organ after delivery.

To fully understand the placenta and how it works, we need to be able to study it during pregnancy, while it's still doing its job. The Human Placenta Project aims to accelerate the development and application of innovative—and safe—technologies and approaches that will give researchers a new and dynamic picture of placental structure and function in real time. This information will help us better understand how the human placenta develops and how it works to ensure a successful pregnancy.

Q. Why the focus on the "human" placenta? Does that mean you aren't supporting work on animal and other model systems?
A. Model systems are critical to placental research, allowing researchers to perform studies that are not possible in humans. Much of what we know about placental biology to date has come from the study of model systems, and NICHD remains committed to supporting this research.

However, model systems can never be perfect substitutes for humans. The Human Placenta Project aims to address gaps in our understanding by allowing researchers to monitor human placental health in real time. This knowledge may improve the ability of healthcare providers to evaluate pregnancy risks and, in the future, lead to better pregnancy outcomes.

To reach that goal, additional research in animal models may be necessary. However, for the Human Placenta Project, we are interested in animal studies only if they have a clear path for eventual translation to humans. NICHD continues to support other basic research in placental biology through the funding of investigator-initiated proposals and other initiatives.
Researchers interested in non-HPP funding opportunities for placental research may wish to review our program announcement on trophoblast differentiation and function, PA-16-445 or contact John Ilekis, Ph.D., who manages NICHD grants that address the physiology, biochemistry, and genetics of the placenta.

Q. Are you accepting donated placentas for use in research?
A. No. We do not currently have a repository for placentas or placental tissue. We are exploring ways to promote this type of opportunity in the future.

Q. What projects are funded?
A. More information about our funded projects is available on NIH RePORTER, which provides details such as the project's description, principal investigator, organization, and cost. To streamline the list, we have included just one entry per project, showing the initial year of funding. However, all of these projects are multi-year awards, pending progress and the availability of funds.

The Human Placenta Project was inspired by the NICHD's Scientific Vision (PDF - 2 MB) and is described in these articles:

  • Guttmacher, AE, Maddox, YT, & Spong, CY. (2014). The Human Placenta Project: Placental structure, development, and function in real time. Placenta, May;35(5), 303-4. (PMID: 24661567
  • Sadovsky, Y, Clifton, VL, & Burton, GJ. (2014). Invigorating placental research through the 'Human Placenta Project.' Placenta, August;35(8), 527. (PMID: 24997635)
  • Guttmacher, AE, & Spong, CY. (2015). The Human Placenta Project: It's time for real time. Am J Obstet GynecolOct;213(4 Suppl), S3-S5. (PMID: 26428502)

The project has five main research objectives:

  • Improve current methods and develop new technologies for real-time assessment of placental development across pregnancy.
  • Apply these technologies to understand and monitor, in real time, placental development and function in normal and abnormal pregnancies.
  • Develop and evaluate non-invasive markers for prediction of adverse pregnancy outcomes.
  • Understand the contributions of placental development to long-term health and disease.
  • Develop interventions to prevent abnormal placental development and hence improve pregnancy outcomes.

The project complements NICHD's portfolio of basic placental research and aims to develop new tools to study the organ in real time to learn how it develops and functions throughout pregnancy. That knowledge may one day prevent and treat a range of common pregnancy complications, while also providing insights into other areas of science and medicine.

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