Organ-on-a-Chip Network & Emulate Proof of Concept Award

Chip model of placental and fetal membranes to characterise damage caused by particles of air pollution

Principal Investigator:
  • Stefaan Verbruggen
    University of Sheffield
  • Jonathan Grigg
    Queen Mary University of London
  • Anna David
    University College London
Award round: 3


There is strong evidence that exposure to air pollution during pregnancy is associated with serious adverse birth outcomes such as preterm birth, asthma and cancer. Air pollution results mainly from the combustion of fossil fuels or industrial emissions and has become a major global public health issue for people in all age groups. The relationship between breathing in air pollution during pregnancy and a higher risk of preterm birth is well established. In 2021, three experimental studies showed the presence of black carbon particles in the fetal and maternal side of placenta tissues with the highest levels in mothers who lived closest to busy roads. The adverse effects on pregnancy are due to breathing in particles less than 10 microns in size which move into the placenta tissues and cause pregnancy complications such as miscarriage, fetal growth restriction, low birth weight and preterm premature rupture of the fetal membranes (PPROM).

Whilst many studies have shown that carbon particles inhaled from smoking can reach the placenta tissues and affect child health (eg. asthma), the movement of pollution particles from the placenta to the fetal membranes and resulting damage to tissue structure (collagen), inflammation, rupture and preterm birth are unknown.

This project will use a human fetal chip model to study how carbon particles from car exhausts affect cell behaviour and why the structure of collagen is damaged. Cells will be taken from human placentas, fetal membranes and amniotic fluid of pregnant women who live in low and highly polluted areas of North and East London. An important deliverable to support the MRC project application resubmission is pilot data demonstrating reliable and reproducible chip data which can be applied to investigate the effects of other pollution types, such as metal and plastic micro particles found in the air. We are a multi-disciplinary team of scientists, engineers and clinicians working in regenerative and environmental medicine from QMUL, UCL, UCLH, Barts and the Royal London Hospital and Mexico City to address the questions. We are following the women's daily exposure during pregnancy using information provided by the London Air Quality Network and Air Quality EarthSense Systems. We plan to compare our experimental data with the clinical and research teams in partnership with the Faculty of Medicine (UNAM) who are following pregnant women who live in east and west areas of Mexico City.

We work with patient advocacy groups Little Heartbeats and Twins Trust to help us promote our twitter campaign #SaveBabiesLives and improve Women's Health. The data will be made available to the public to raise greater awareness and lifestyle needed during a healthy pregnancy without adding risk for a preterm delivery and PPROM.

Key Outputs

Grant application to Rosetree Foundation (£350k)