The number of preterm births and neonatal deaths is growing worldwide due to the increasing prevalence of environmental toxins that can affect unborn babies.

Clinical trials are the current approach for ensuring a substance is safe for humans; however, just 1% of all clinical trials consider pregnant women. As a result, there is limited scientific data available on how many medications and environmental chemicals can affect unborn babies and pregnant women. The lifesaver project aims to develop miniaturised lab-based organ-on-a-chip models of the placenta for drug testing, along with a virtual clone guided by machine learning that can predict the safety and risk of substances towards unborn babies.

Contributing to the LIFESAVER project, a European-wide research consortium, the team at CÚRAM SFI Research Centre will focus on designing and manufacturing an organ-on-a-chip platform that mimics key components of placental tissue for emulation of typical prenatal conditions. Leading the project for CÚRAM are Dr Andrew Daly and Professor Abhay Pandit. Daly is a Lecturer in Biomedical Engineering and CÚRAM Funded Investigator. His research focuses on developing bioprinted models of development and disease.  

As Daly explains: “Our research will include developing biomaterial microenvironments that mimic the placental tissue, along with using bioprinting to recreate the cellular microarchitecture of the placenta. This platform will be used to evaluate the toxicity of common medications and environmental substances. It will provide crucial input data for the virtual clone that will be used for predicting toxicity.”

Predictive lab-based models of the placenta will accelerate the effective screening of pharmaceuticals and chemicals which could affect unborn babies. This will help ensure healthier and safer lives for future generations.

 Professor Abhay Pandit, Scientific Director of CÚRAM, said: “CÚRAM is proud to be a consortium partner in the LIFESAVER project, which addresses the current unmet societal and healthcare needs in creating a valid and scientific knowledge base, which is needed for the development and implementation of regulatory approaches relevant to maternal and fetal health.”

LIFESAVER concept is based on an original idea of hybridization of several innovative technologies, integrating digital in silico/in vitro (biodigital twin) systems, enabling effective screening of chemicals and pharmaceuticals which might affect pregnant women's health, reducing animal, preclinical and clinical testing, which is not presently possible with any other existing approaches to the same level of confidence.