The role of the placenta in drug transport and fetal drug exposure

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Introduction: It was assumed for decades that the human placenta serves as a barrier, protecting the fetus from exposure to xenobiotics circulating in the mother. The thalidomide disaster completely reversed this concept. The study of the human placenta is therefore critical to understanding the mechanisms by which xenobiotics reach the fetus and exert their effects. Areas covered: This review describes mechanisms by which drugs interact with the human placenta, and experimental methods to study these interactions in humans. We have selected three areas of current clinical interest, where the placenta exhibits critical role in drug transport: The ABC transporters, the placental handling of cancer therapeutic drugs and the interaction between the placenta and immunoglobulins. Expert commentary: The optimal model to predict drug transfer and transport from the mother to the fetus is the isolated human placental lobule perfused in vitro. Unlike subcellular preparations or tissue homogenates, data obtained from a perfused intact tissue, where structural integrity and cell-cell organization are maintained, more closely reflect the in vivo situation. Moreover, confounding metabolic and physiologic influences are minimized and the experimental conditions can be controlled. It is important to remember that due to significant differences in the function of the placenta in the first two months (histiotrophic nutrition) and later in pregnancy (hemotrophic nutrition) there might be differences in the transplacental transfer of drugs. While most of our knowledge comes from studies on term placentae, we are in need of studies on young placenta that functions during the period of organogenesis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)373-385
Number of pages13
JournalExpert Review of Clinical Pharmacology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 3 Apr 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • ABC transporters
  • Placenta
  • cancer
  • drug transfer
  • drug transport
  • immunoglobulin G
  • pregnancy


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