Newswise — Placental malaria as a consequence of Plasmodium falciparum infections can lead to severe complications for both mother and child. Each year, placental malaria causes nearly 200,000 newborn deaths, mainly due to low birth weight, as well as 10,000 maternal deaths. Placental malaria results from parasite-infected red blood cells that get stuck within tree-like branch structures that make up the placenta. 

Research on human placenta is experimentally challenging due to ethical considerations and inaccessibility of the living organs. The anatomy of the human placenta and architecture of maternal–fetal interface, such as between maternal and fetal blood, are complex and cannot be easily reconstructed in their entirety using modern in vitro models.

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science and Schmidt College of Medicine have developed a placenta-on-a-chip model that mimics the nutrient exchange between the fetus and mother under the influence of placental malaria. Combining microbiology with engineering technologies, this novel 3D model uses a single microfluidic chip to study the complicated processes that take place in malaria-infected placenta as well as other placenta-related diseases and pathologies.

Placenta-on-a-chip simulates blood flow and mimics the microenvironment of the malaria-infected placenta in this flow condition. Using this method, researchers closely examine the process that takes place as the infected red blood cells interact with the placental vasculature. This microdevice enables them to measure the glucose diffusion across the modeled placental barrier and the effects of blood infected with a P. falciparum line that can adhere to the surface of placenta using placenta-expressed molecule called CSA.

For the study, trophoblasts or outer layer cells of the placenta and human umbilical vein endothelial cells were cultured on the opposite sides of an extracellular matrix gel in a compartmental microfluidic system, forming a physiological barrier between the co-flow tubular structure to mimic a simplified maternal–fetal interface in placental villi.

Results, published in Scientific Reports, demonstrated that CSA-binding infected erythrocytes added resistance to the simulated placental barrier for glucose perfusion and decreased the glucose transfer across this barrier. The comparison between the glucose transport rate across the placental barrier in conditions when uninfected or P. falciparum infected blood flows on outer layer cells helps to better understand this important aspect of placental malaria pathology and could potentially be used as a model to study ways to treat placental malaria.

“Despite advances in biosensing and live cell imaging, interpreting transport across the placental barrier remains challenging. This is because placental nutrient transport is a complex problem that involves multiple cell types, multi-layer structures, as well as coupling between cell consumption and diffusion across the placental barrier,” said Sarah E. Du, Ph.D., senior author and an associate professor in FAU’s Department of Ocean and Mechanical Engineering. “Our technology supports formation of microengineered placental barriers and mimics blood circulations, which provides alternative approaches for testing and screening.”  

Most of the molecular exchange between maternal and fetal blood occurs in the branching tree-like structures called villous trees. Because placental malaria may start only after the beginning of second trimester when intervillous space opens to infected red blood cells and white blood cells, the researchers were interested in the placental model of maternal–fetal interface formed in the second half of pregnancy.

“This study provides vital information on the exchange of nutrients between mother and fetus affected by malaria,” said Stella Batalama, Ph.D., dean, FAU College of Engineering and Computer Science. “Studying the molecular transport between maternal and fetal compartments may help to understand some of the pathophysiological mechanisms in placental malaria. Importantly, this novel microfluidic device developed by our researchers at Florida Atlantic University could serve as a model for other placenta-relevant diseases.”

Study co-authors are Babak Mosavati, Ph.D., a recent graduate in FAU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science; and Andrew Oleinikov, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical science, FAU Schmidt College of Medicine.

The research was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the National Science Foundation. 

- FAU -

About FAU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science:

The FAU College of Engineering and Computer Science is internationally recognized for cutting edge research and education in the areas of computer science and artificial intelligence (AI), computer engineering, electrical engineering, biomedical engineering, civil, environmental and geomatics engineering, mechanical engineering, and ocean engineering. Research conducted by the faculty and their teams expose students to technology innovations that push the current state-of-the art of the disciplines. The College research efforts are supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Department of Education (DOEd), the State of Florida, and industry. The FAU College of Engineering and Computer Science offers degrees with a modern twist that bear specializations in areas of national priority such as AI, cybersecurity, internet-of-things, transportation and supply chain management, and data science. New degree programs include Master of Science in AI (first in Florida), Master of Science and Bachelor in Data Science and Analytics, and the new Professional Master of Science and Ph.D. in computer science for working professionals. For more information about the College, please visit


About the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine:

FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine is one of approximately 156 accredited medical schools in the U.S. The college was launched in 2010, when the Florida Board of Governors made a landmark decision authorizing FAU to award the M.D. degree. After receiving approval from the Florida legislature and the governor, it became the 134th allopathic medical school in North America. With more than 70 full and part-time faculty and more than 1,300 affiliate faculty, the college matriculates 64 medical students each year and has been nationally recognized for its innovative curriculum. To further FAU’s commitment to increase much needed medical residency positions in Palm Beach County and to ensure that the region will continue to have an adequate and well-trained physician workforce, the FAU Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine Consortium for Graduate Medical Education (GME) was formed in fall 2011 with five leading hospitals in Palm Beach County. The Consortium currently has five Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) accredited residencies including internal medicine, surgery, emergency medicine, psychiatry, and neurology.


About Florida Atlantic University: Florida Atlantic University, established in 1961, officially opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the University serves more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students across six campuses located along the southeast Florida coast. In recent years, the University has doubled its research expenditures and outpaced its peers in student achievement rates. Through the coexistence of access and excellence, FAU embodies an innovative model where traditional achievement gaps vanish. FAU is designated a Hispanic-serving institution, ranked as a top public university by U.S. News & World Report and a High Research Activity institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. For more information, visit


Journal Link: Scientific Reports