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

Photo: Getty
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Unite stewards urge members to back Owen Smith

In a letter to Unite members, the officials have called for a vote for the longshot candidate.

29 Unite officials have broken ranks and thrown their weight behind Owen Smith’s longshot bid for the Labour leadership in an open letter to their members.

The officials serve as stewards, conveners and negotiators in Britain’s aerospace and shipbuilding industries, and are believed in part to be driven by Jeremy Corbyn’s longstanding opposition to the nuclear deterrent and defence spending more generally.

In the letter to Unite members, who are believed to have been signed up in large numbers to vote in the Labour leadership race, the stewards highlight Smith’s support for extra funding in the NHS and his vision for an industrial strategy.

Corbyn was endorsed by Unite, Labour's largest affliated union and the largest trades union in the country, following votes by Unite's ruling executive committee and policy conference. 

Although few expect the intervention to have a decisive role in the Labour leadership, regarded as a formality for Corbyn, the opposition of Unite workers in these industries may prove significant in Len McCluskey’s bid to be re-elected as general secretary of Unite.

 

The full letter is below:

Britain needs a Labour Government to defend jobs, industry and skills and to promote strong trade unions. As convenors and shop stewards in the manufacturing, defence, aerospace and energy sectors we believe that Owen Smith is the best candidate to lead the Labour Party in opposition and in government.

Owen has made clear his support for the industries we work in. He has spelt out his vision for an industrial strategy which supports great British businesses: investing in infrastructure, research and development, skills and training. He has set out ways to back British industry with new procurement rules to protect jobs and contracts from being outsourced to the lowest bidder. He has demanded a seat at the table during the Brexit negotiations to defend trade union and workers’ rights. Defending manufacturing jobs threatened by Brexit must be at the forefront of the negotiations. He has called for the final deal to be put to the British people via a second referendum or at a general election.

But Owen has also talked about the issues which affect our families and our communities. Investing £60 billion extra over 5 years in the NHS funded through new taxes on the wealthiest. Building 300,000 new homes a year over 5 years, half of which should be social housing. Investing in Sure Start schemes by scrapping the charitable status of private schools. That’s why we are backing Owen.

The Labour Party is at a crossroads. We cannot ignore reality – we need to be radical but we also need to be credible – capable of winning the support of the British people. We need an effective Opposition and we need a Labour Government to put policies into practice that will defend our members’ and their families’ interests. That’s why we are backing Owen.

Steve Hibbert, Convenor Rolls Royce, Derby
Howard Turner, Senior Steward, Walter Frank & Sons Limited
Danny Coleman, Branch Secretary, GE Aviation, Wales
Karl Daly, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Nigel Stott, Convenor, BASSA, British Airways
John Brough, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
John Bennett, Site Convenor, Babcock Marine, Devonport, Plymouth
Kevin Langford, Mechanical Convenor, Babcock, Devonport, Plymouth
John McAllister, Convenor, Vector Aerospace Helicopter Services
Garry Andrews, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Sunderland
Steve Froggatt, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Jim McGivern, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Alan Bird, Chairman & Senior Rep, Rolls Royce, Derby
Raymond Duguid, Convenor, Babcock, Rosyth
Steve Duke, Senior Staff Rep, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
Paul Welsh, Works Convenor, Brush Electrical Machines, Loughborough
Bob Holmes, Manual Convenor, BAE Systems, Warton, Lancs
Simon Hemmings, Staff Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Mick Forbes, Works Convenor, GKN, Birmingham
Ian Bestwick, Chief Negotiator, Rolls Royce Submarines, Derby
Mark Barron, Senior Staff Rep, Pallion, Sunderland
Ian Hodgkison, Chief Negotiator, PCO, Rolls Royce
Joe O’Gorman, Convenor, BAE Systems, Maritime Services, Portsmouth
Azza Samms, Manual Workers Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Dave Thompson, Staff Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Tim Griffiths, Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Paul Blake, Convenor, Princess Yachts, Plymouth
Steve Jones, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Bristol
Colin Gosling, Senior Rep, Siemens Traffic Solutions, Poole

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.