When researchers Fannin and Kent interviewed staff and donors involved with the “Children of the 90s” placental biobank, ALSPAC (Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children), they found an ongoing narrative from staff and donors important in building and maintaining this unique research population.1 As placentas are more than just clinical waste from the birthing process, the authors discovered that even though the collection has not yet achieved its full research potential, collecting the placentas and maintaining storage over the decades has increased the value of both the tissue and its accompanying data.
The placental collection started with recruitment of pregnant women between 1990 and 1992 in the Bristol area of the United Kingdom. Along with placental collection at delivery, participants also gave important lifestyle data before, during and after pregnancy. Researchers then followed up with data collection from the donors and their offspring in a regional longitudinal population health study, prospectively collecting biosamples and health information for future research. In total, 14,541 women donated placentas to the collection.
Following consent, midwives retrieved the entire placenta at delivery, then stored it in formalin alone or pooled in buckets. Researchers expected that examining the placentas would give accurate measurements of the fetal environment pre-birth, thus furthering investigation into intra-uterine influences on neonatal and childhood health. These biosamples have been maintained in storage since the early 1990s when the collection started.
By interviewing women involved as donors in the study (n=12), Fannin and Kent discovered that many could recall details surrounding the delivery and donation, and made comments correlating the state of the placenta to the health of the newborn child and adding to their birth stories. At the time, placentas were routinely discarded following delivery, though some were sold to the cosmetics industry. Some participants felt that the placenta, as a donated organ, “had a job to do” and believed that research outcomes from the donation would benefit child health in years to come.
Additionally, since recruitment took place in a geographically confined area, many donors and their families knew other donors, which helped with both initial recruitment efforts and ongoing data collection. In this way, biobanking was an important factor in constituting a population for ongoing longitudinal study, increasing the biovalue of the human tissue collected.
In conjunction with networking among donors, which increased the value of the contributions, the study authors also found a strong sense of responsibility in staff involved with the biobank. Although staff expressed concern that potentials for research had not been fully recognized, they felt the collection was worth preserving as a valuable resource for future investigation. At the biobank’s initiation, the focus of research outcomes was open-ended, with direction only that the materials and data could serve as an archive of factors affecting the feto-maternal in utero environment for future study. Some staff expressed disappointment about the use of formalin as a preservative, which rendered the placental tissue unsuitable for many techniques. Nevertheless, investing many staff hours has kept the collection in good condition over the years. Researchers interviewed believe that its time will come and that the tissues might be suitable for epigenetics research.
In drawing a conclusion, Fannin and Kent describe the value of the tissues held in the biobank in their function as a true “connective tissue,” keeping the link between mother and child as researchers consider collecting the second generation of placentas from the offspring themselves. The authors also consider that the ALSPAC placental biobank holds many good historical references for establishing and maintaining similar biobanks in the future. In these ways, it truly is an investment for the future.
1. Fannin, M. and Kent, J. (2015) “Origin stories from a regional placenta tissue collection,” New Genetics and Society 34 (pp.25–51), doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14636778.2014.999153