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Sci Adv. 2019 Apr 17;5(4):eaav6326. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aav6326. eCollection 2019 Apr.

Physical and geometric determinants of transport in fetoplacental microvascular networks.

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School of Mathematics, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, UK.
Department of Mathematics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139-4307, USA.
Centre for Trophoblast Research, Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EG, UK.
Homerton College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 8PH, UK.
Maternal and Fetal Health Research Centre, Division of Developmental Biology and Medicine, School of Medical Sciences, University of Manchester, Manchester Academic Health Science Centre, Manchester M13 9PL, UK.


Across mammalian species, solute exchange takes place in complex microvascular networks. In the human placenta, the primary exchange units are terminal villi that contain disordered networks of fetal capillaries and are surrounded externally by maternal blood. We show how the irregular internal structure of a terminal villus determines its exchange capacity for diverse solutes. Distilling geometric features into three parameters, obtained from image analysis and computational fluid dynamics, we capture archetypal features of the structure-function relationship of terminal villi using a simple algebraic approximation, revealing transitions between flow- and diffusion-limited transport at vessel and network levels. Our theory accommodates countercurrent effects, incorporates nonlinear blood rheology, and offers an efficient method for testing network robustness. Our results show how physical estimates of solute transport, based on carefully defined geometrical statistics, provide a viable method for linking placental structure and function and offer a framework for assessing transport in other microvascular systems.

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