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Studies shine light on mysterious placenta, how it goes awry

Scientists carefully probe a placenta donated after birth, bluish umbilical cord still attached. This is the body's most mysterious organ, and inside lie clues about how it gives life — and how it can go awry, leading to stillbirth, preterm birth, even infections like the Zika virus that somehow sneak past its protective barrier.

In labs around the country, major research is underway to finally understand and monitor this floppy, bloody tissue that's often dismissed as the "afterbirth," the organ that lives about nine months and then gets thrown away.

The stakes are high. The placenta is the ultimate multitasker: It nourishes a fetus, acts as its lungs,...

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