Stanford Departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Chemical Engineering Awarded Funding to Create 3D Model of Human Placental Development

From left to right: Roger Pedersen, PhD, Vittorio Sebastiano, PhD, Katherine Biano, MD, Virginia Winn, MD, PhD, Ruth Lathi, MD (not pictured Alex Dunn, PhD)

To improve maternal and fetal outcomes, there is an urgent need for a deeper understanding of the critical, early phases of placental development, when the extraembryonic tissues of the embryo invade the maternal uterine tissue and initiate the development of the placenta. Placental trophoblasts are critical to this process and to a successful pregnancy outcome. However, little is known about the early stages of human trophoblast differentiation, and placental development generally, due to limited in vivo access and a historical lack of experimental models, i.e., stem/progenitor cell lines. Moreover, essential aspects of human placental biology are not captured in animal models, though the power of genetic approaches make these latter systems valuable for studying placentation.

Thanks to a Stanford Child Health Research Institute Transdisciplinary Initiatives Program grant, Stanford’s departments of obstetrics and gynecology and chemical engineering will be able to combine their expertise in human embryology, placental development, clinical infertility, biomaterials and tissue engineering to generate an in vitro model system to characterize the earliest steps in human placenta formation. This transformative technical advance will be coupled with unique euploid and aneuploid trophoblast progenitor cell lines that have known phenotypic defects to elucidate how and why placental development fails in the context of diseases of pregnancy.

This collaboration is highly interdisciplinary, benefiting from the tight integration of expertise in fields ranging from chemical engineering to reproductive medicine.

Co-Principal Investigators

Alex Dunn, PhD, is an expert in the design of novel biomaterials, microfluidic cell culture, and live-cell imaging

Katherine Bianco, MD, is a maternal-fetal medicine and genetics specialist with experience in placental biology, aneuploidy and in developing human trophoblast progenitor lines.


Roger Pedersen, PhD, is an embryologist and world expert in stem cell and human embryo development.

Virginia D. Winn, MD, PhD, is a physician-scientist with deep expertise in placental biology and maternal-fetal medicine.

Ruth Lathi, MD, is a reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist with a specific expertise in recurrent pregnancy loss.

Vittorio Sebastiano, PhD, is an expert in pre- and post-implantation mammalian development, stem cell biology and genome editing.

Knowledge gained here will allow us to study the earliest aspects of human development with unprecedented precision, advancing our understanding of fertility complications and diseases of pregnancy, many of which arise from placental dysfunction.