Tommy’s is studying maternal blood to detect if failing placentas are causing stillbirths

Tommy’s Stillbirth Research Centre in Manchester is looking into the role of the failing placenta in causing fetal growth restriction (FGR), the leading cause of stillbirth in the UK.

Manchester Research Clinic

December 2016

When a baby is born sleeping it causes untold heartbreak for parents and families.

The psychological effect of entering hospital anticipating the arrival of your baby and leaving instead with nothing is devastating and often has long-term psychological effects for both mum and the whole family.

Sadly, 10 babies will be born sleeping every single day in the UK. This number is unacceptable, and is much higher than many other neighbouring high income countries such as Iceland, Denmark and Portugal.

Over 3,500 babies every year are stillborn and in many cases these deaths remained unexplained.

Our Manchester stillbirth research centre is working to understand the causes in order to then find methods of preventing it. The team are currently focusing on the detection of Fetal Growth Restriction (FGR) through detecting abnormalities in the function of the placenta.

FGR is a condition that occurs in 5% of pregnancies in which a baby’s growth slows or stops when they are in the womb; this can cause stillbirth. You can read more about it here.

The main cause of FGR is failure of the placenta and this is why the Manchester team are focusing heavily on placenta research.

Clinical Director of our stillbirth centre Professor Alex Heazell says,

‘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.’

Investigators Dr Bernadette Baker and Dr Rebecca Jones are working alongside Professor Heazell on a research study that is using maternal blood tests to try and detect abnormalities in the function of the placenta. If successful, this could help us significantly reduce both the number of stillbirths, and the number of babies born preterm. 

The study is measuring small fragments of DNA-like material in the mother’s blood called microRNAs to see if they are produced by the placenta in women at high risk of stillbirth.

If the results indicate that there is a specific kind of microRNAs being produced by a failing placenta, this could form the basis of a test to identify a high risk of stillbirth.

This in turn would enable medical professionals to act quickly and deliver babies that are at risk and spare parents the heartbreak of losing their little one.

This study has already had some positive results suggesting these tests will be a success. The team is now going to increase the number of samples in order to verify their findings. Go to our website to read more about this study and its progress so far.

You can read more about our Manchester’s centre’s research into FGR here.

If you are concerned that you may be at risk of suffering a stillbirth then please do talk to your GP or medical professionals at your local hospital. There is no such thing as a silly question or concern when it comes to the welfare of your baby.

Warning signs of FGR can be a reduction or change in your babies’ movements. Take a look at our reduced fetal movements campaign and video here that urges mums to follow current recommendations about what to do if they experience this. 

Read more about our stillbirth research

  • The team at the Rainbow Clinic

    The Rainbow Clinic

    The Tommy's Rainbow Clinic is part of the Tommy's Stillbirth Research Centre at St Mary's Hospital in Manchester. It provides specialist care for women who have suffered a previous stillbirth or neonatal death.

  • Diagram of baby and placenta in womb

    The Placenta Clinic

    The Placenta Clinic, run as part of the Tommy's Stillbirth Research Centre at St Mary's Hospital in Manchester, is the largest placenta-focused research group in the world.

  • researcher looking through microscope

    Tommy’s Manchester Research Centre

    Tommy’s research centre at St Mary’s Hospital opened in 2001 and is now home to around 100 clinicians and scientists researching the causes of stillbirth.

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