The placenta is one of the most important organs in the human body yet is also one of the least understood. The National Institute of Health (NIH) hopes to change this with their recent pledge to dedicate $41.5 million towards The Human Placenta Project, an initiative to better understand the role of the placenta in both pregnancy and our long-term health.

Unlike the heart and the lungs, the placenta is a human organ whose purpose is only temporary.However, this does not make it any less important.

“The placenta is a lifeline that gives us our start in the world,” Dr. Alan E. Guttmacher, who is leading the research effort, explained in a recent press release. “It influences the health of mother and child not just during pregnancy, but for the rest of their lives.”

Unfortunately the placenta has received very little attention from the medical community. As a result, our understanding of its growth and its ultimate influence on human life is limited.

The placenta works by taking oxygen from the mother and sending it directly to her growing child. It also blocks potentially dangerous substances, such as carbon dioxide, from reaching the womb. Along with maintaining and protecting the fetus, the placenta produces hormones that help ensure the pregnancy proceeds normally.

The placenta is expelled from the body during child birth. Because the placenta is filled with vital nutrients, in nature many animals will eat their placenta after giving birth as a way to build up their strength. This practice has recently become popular among woman as it is reputed to help in the post-birth recovery and even ward off “baby-blues.” Due to the lack of empirical data, doctors are not sure whether eating the placenta makes a difference in the health of humans. Despite no concrete health benefits, there are also no known dangers in the practice as long as the placenta is not infected with dangerous bacteria or contaminated, Health USA reported.

Doctors know that when problems occur with the placenta the consequences can be serious for both mother and baby. One of the biggest examples of these is preeclampsia; a condition which can restrict blood flow to the placenta. If the child doesn’t receive enough oxygen and nutrients, its growth will become stunted. This can lead to a preterm birth which in turn has complications, such as breathing difficulties, which can last with the child throughout their lifetime.

As of now we are limited to studying the placenta using ultra sounds and blood tests but the goal of the funding is to introduce new technologies, such as imaging tools and sensors, which will give doctors a more in-depth idea of the placenta’s function during pregnancy.

“We expect that the technologies resulting from this initiative will also translate to other organs and open new avenues of study that will benefit human health,” concluded Dr. Roderic Pettigrew, who is co-sponsoring the project, in the press release.