Mane event: horse placenta has been used to treat footballers’ injuries. Photo: Getty
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The placenta is a marvel that scientists can’t match

Nothing we can engineer has come close to replicating the placenta’s ability to act as the kidney, lungs, hormone source, nutrition channel and waste disposal unit for a growing foetus.

The unwritten rules of journalism will ensure that, for the next month, few stories will be able to string together more than 500 words without mentioning the World Cup. Luckily, Spain’s Diego Costa has used horse placenta to treat an injury; this, he claims, allowed him to recover in time for the Champions League final and be fully fit for Rio. It’s also why we can now discuss the idea for the Human Placenta Project.

At the end of last month, placenta experts (research scientists, not people who drip horse placenta extract on to desperate athletes) gathered in Maryland in the US. Their aim was to establish a project to learn how this most understudied of organs works – and what to do when it doesn’t.

Questionable medical applications aside, the placenta is a marvel. You wouldn’t be here without it. Although scientists have been trying for decades to create artificial versions, they have failed miserably. Nothing we can engineer has come close to replicating the placenta’s ability to act as the kidney, lungs, hormone source, nutrition channel and waste disposal unit for a growing foetus.

That said, not all placentas are created equal. And yet we have no scientific definition of the ideal placenta, which makes it very hard to diagnose a faulty one. Placentas that have nurtured babies who have been born weak or sick often look entirely normal. Abnormal-looking placentas are frequently associated with healthy babies. The devil, it seems, is in the detail.

The placenta grows from a layer of cells that surrounds the early foetus. These cells attach themselves to the wall of the uterus and then develop a network of tiny blood vessels that tap into the uterine blood supply, while also maintaining a barrier between the two organisms to stop the foetus from triggering the mother’s immune system. The mother-foetus connection doesn’t always work perfectly. Sometimes the placenta doesn’t attach properly or is too small to provide all the nutrition the baby needs, which can cause a range of medical problems for the mother-to-be and the foetus, often necessitating early delivery.

It can take years for some results of placental problems to manifest. Studies have shown that an abnormal placenta is linked to health issues in later life such as heart disease and diabetes. That’s because if the foetus gets too little nutrition, it builds budget versions of vital organs and tissues. Kidneys will have fewer of the nephrons that do its filtering work. The heart will have fewer muscle cells and the pancreas will skimp on insulin-producing ones.

The Human Placenta Project might do more than lead to healthier births. Understanding exactly how the placenta keeps the foetus from rejection by the pregnant mother is of great interest to the field of transplant surgery, for instance.

It could also help in the fight against cancer. Many cancers contain proteins created by a gene called PLAC1. In normal tissue, this gene is inactive; it is usually switched on only in placental tissue. PLAC1 has been found in tumours taken from breast, ovarian and prostate cancer cells and has recently been found to be active in tumours – mainly stomach cancers and lymphomas – caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. We would do well to find out why.

The answers to this and other questions about the placenta are most likely to be found through closer study of an organ that hospitals (excluding horse hospitals, it seems) routinely send to the incinerator. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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How Labour risks becoming a party without a country

Without establishing the role of Labour in modern Britain, the party is unlikely ever to govern again.

“In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn

All I want for you to do is take my body home”

- Blind Willie Johnson

The Conservative Party is preparing itself for a bloody civil war. Conservative MPs will tell anyone who wants to know (Labour MPs and journalists included) that there are 100 Conservative MPs sitting on letters calling for a leadership contest. When? Whenever they want to. This impending war has many reasons: ancient feuds, bad blood, personal spite and enmity, thwarted ambition, and of course, the European Union.

Fundamentally, at the heart of the Tory war over the European Union is the vexed question of ‘What is Britain’s place in the World?’ That this question remains unanswered a quarter of a century after it first decimated the Conservative Party is not a sign that the Party is incapable of answering the question, but that it has no settled view on what the correct answer should be.

The war persists because the truth is that there is no compromise solution. The two competing answers are binary opposites: internationalist or insular nationalist, co-habitation is an impossibility.

The Tories, in any event, are prepared to keep on asking this question, seemingly to the point of destruction. For the most part, Labour has answered this question: Britain will succeed as an outward looking, internationalist state. The equally important question facing the Labour Party is ‘What is the place of the Labour Party in modern Britain?’ Without answering this question, Labour is unlikely to govern ever again and in contrast to the Tories, Labour has so far refused to acknowledge that such a question is being asked of it by the people it was founded to serve. At its heart, this is a question about England and the rapidly changing nature of the United Kingdom.

In the wake of the 2016 elections, the approach that Labour needs to take with regard to the ‘English question’ is more important than ever before. With Scotland out of reach for at least a generation (assuming it remains within the United Kingdom) and with Labour’s share of the vote falling back in Wales in the face of strong challenges from Plaid Cymru and UKIP, Labour will need to rely upon winning vast swathes of England if we are to form a government in 2020.

In a new book published this week, Labour’s Identity Crisis, Tristram Hunt has brought together Labour MPs, activists and parliamentary candidates from the 2015 general election to explore the challenges facing Labour in England and how the party should address these, not purely as an electoral device, but as a matter of principle.

My contribution to the book was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. The track list reads like the score for a musical tragedy based upon the Labour Party from 2010 onwards: In My Time of Dying, Trampled Underfoot, Sick Again, Ten Years Gone. 

Continued Labour introspection is increasingly tiresome for the political commentariat – even boring – and Labour’s Identity Crisis is a genuinely exciting attempt to swinge through this inertia. As well as exploring our most recent failure, the book attempts to chart the course towards the next Labour victory: political cartography at its most urgent.

This collection of essays represents an overdue effort to answer the question that the Party has sought to sidestep for too long.  In the run up to 2020, as the United Kingdom continues to atomise, the Labour Party must have an ambitious, compelling vision for England, or else risks becoming a party without a country.

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.