Interview with Professor Alex Heazell

Professor Alex Heazell is the Clinical Director of the Tommy’s stillbirth research centre in St Mary’s Hospital, Manchester.

Over 3,000 babies are stillborn every year in the UK and many of these deaths remain unexplained. This causes untold heartbreak for the families who experience the loss of their baby. It also results in fear and anxiety in following pregnancies for the parents.

Tommy’s Stillbirth Research Centre, based in St Mary's hospital in Manchester, is dedicated to finding the causes of stillbirth and testing care approaches that will help to save babies’ lives. We also run a specialist clinic for parents who are pregnant after a stillbirth called the Rainbow Clinic, where parents who have been bereaved are given extra care and reassurance.

Professor Alex Heazell is the Clinical Director of the centre.

Do parents-to-be know enough about the risk of stillbirth?

Everyone is aware of pregnancy loss and it’s very common for parents to wait until their 12 week scan before telling friends and family the good news. However, once those 12 weeks have passed the risk of losing a baby isn’t talked about.

One of the biggest challenges we face is making sure we talk about stillbirth enough so women know what warning signs to look out for, without causing unnecessary worry and anxiety.

In a way, the taboo around stillbirth is similar to that surrounding cancer fifty years ago - without discussion of signs and symptoms, however small the chances were of developing it - people didn’t come forward with their symptoms early enough.

For me, finding that balance and lifting that taboo is critical.

Stillbirth research is still in its early days. Why do you think it’s so far behind other types of research?

For many years, there was a sense of fatalism about stillbirth – it was just seen as ‘one of those things’.

No one grabbed the nettle and asked why.

Unfortunately that left us starting from basics. There’s no doubt that stillbirth research has a lot of catching up to do in comparison with other areas of medicine, and even other pregnancy complications.

For example, there’s more than 90,000 papers published on ovarian cancer compared to 3,000 currently published about stillbirth, which just shows how far behind we are.

While we know that cancer is caused by cell mutation, stillbirth isn’t the result of one particular problem or disease, so we need to find the possible causes before we can develop tests and treatments.

So where do we start with stillbirth research and prevention?

We know that many preventable stillbirths are caused by growth restriction, which in turn is caused by a problem with the mother’s placenta.

Here in Manchester, we’re focusing on research into the placenta among other things, and we’re starting with women whom we can identify as being at high-risk.

We use advanced scanning techniques to examine the placenta and the aim is to develop a test which can show if a baby is at risk. At the moment, when we spot a baby that for example isn’t growing properly or a problem with the placenta, the solution is to find the right time to deliver the baby early.

This can really bear fruit. We've reduced the numbers of stillbirths at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Manchester by 35% in the last 9 years.

What’s one of your best success stories from working with patients?

I run the Rainbow Clinic for women who have had a previous stillbirth, which means they have an increased risk of stillbirth in their next pregnancy.

Working with these women and their families is tremendously rewarding. They have been through such a traumatic experience. As a clinician, you are asking them to trust you and trust in antenatal care which may have previously let them down. That’s a really huge thing.

One of the families that stand out to me had a stillbirth in their fourth pregnancy, which came completely out of the blue. They already had three children, and each time the mum came for a scan, a different child came with her. Seeing the  brothers and sisters come along with their mum brought home again and again how much stillbirth affected the whole family. They were a very close family and the children had lost their hopes and expectations for a little brother or sister, in a similar but different way to their parents.

The pregnancy went well and they now have a little brother – I still have the thank you card.

If you were to change one thing in the next year, what would it be?

I’d want every stillbirth to be investigated, so that we can learn lessons from these tragedies – either lessons for improving care in future, or lessons that can help further our research.

If you want to read more about our stillbirth research centre you can do so here.