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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A unique co-culture model for fundamental and applied studies of human fetoplacental steroidogenesis and interference by environmental chemicals.



Experimental tools for studying the complex steroidogenic interactions that occur between placenta and fetus during human pregnancy are extremely limited.


We aimed to develop a co-culture model to study steroidogenesis by the human fetoplacental unit and its disruption by exposure to environmental contaminants.


We cultured BeWo human choriocarcinoma cells, representing the villous cytotrophoblast, and H295R human adrenocortical carcinoma cells, representing the fetal unit, in a carefully adapted co-culture medium. We placed H295R cells in 24-well plates and BeWo cells on transwell inserts with or without pesticide treatment (atrazine or prochloraz) and assessed CYP19 activity and hormonal production after 24 hr of co-culture.


The co-culture exhibited the steroidogenic profile of the fetoplacental unit, allowing a synergistic production of estradiol and estriol (but not of estrone) of 133.3 ± 11.3 pg/mL and 440.8 ± 44.0 pg/mL, respectively. Atrazine and prochloraz had cell-type specific effects on CYP19 activity and estrogen production in co-culture. Atrazine induced CYP19 activity and estrogen production in H295R cells only, but did not affect overall estrogen production in co-culture, whereas prochloraz inhibited CYP19 activity exclusively in BeWo cells and reduced estrogen production in co-culture by almost 90%. In contrast, prochloraz did not affect estradiol or estrone production in BeWo cells in monoculture. These differential effects underline the relevance of our co-culture approach to model fetoplacental steroidogenesis.


The co-culture of H295R and BeWo cells creates a unique in vitro model to reproduce the steroidogenic cooperation between fetus and placenta during pregnancy and can be used to study the endocrine-disrupting effects of environmental chemicals.

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