PUFFIN: using MRI scans to detect complications of pregnancy hypertension

Prof Lucy Chappell, Dr Kate Duhig, Dr Alison Ho, Dr Carolyn Gill, Mr Paul Seed

We want to identify which women and babies are at risk of complications associated with hypertension. To do this, we are using MRI scans to detect abnormalities.

Why do we need this research?

About 5% of women during pregnancy have hypertension, or high blood pressure, which can lead to problems for both mother and baby.  Mothers are at risk of stroke and damage to their kidneys, while their babies may be born early or underweight. In some cases, this can lead to stillbirth. 

If we can identify which women are at high risk of complications linked to hypertension, this would help us to ensure they receive the right level of care. On the other hand, if we can find out which babies will remain well, we will be able to normalise their care as much as possible, with the aim of avoiding early delivery. 

What’s happening in this project?

Researchers supported by Tommy’s have developed a safe way of taking pictures of the baby and placenta using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans. By studying the placenta in this way, they hope to improve our ability to detect problems linked to high blood pressure. MRI scans also enable us to look at blood flow and see how well the baby’s brain is developing. This could help us to work out which babies are struggling the most. 

Alongside the MRI investigations, the team also want to look at substances in the mother’s blood. They are particularly interested in molecules that are involved in placental blood vessel development, and those which are linked to placental stress.

Our researchers have set up the PUFFIN study to collect data from women throughout and after their pregnancy. The team have recruited 40 women with high blood pressure, and 15 with pre-eclampsia. The women have had MRI scans at different points during pregnancy, and have donated blood samples for the researchers to study. Women who had a caesarean section to deliver their baby also donated samples of the placenta.

Now that all the women have given birth, our scientists are analysing all these MRI scans and samples, to look for signs that could predict if a mother is going to suffer complications later during their pregnancy. They hope to announce the results of their work soon.

The team have also now begun a follow-up study, PUFFIN-2, involving 20 women with both hypertension and diabetes. As well as receiving MRI scans and blood tests, the women will have their blood sugar levels monitored continuously using a special device which sits just under the skin.

What difference will this project make?

The findings from these studies could help doctors decide whether or not a mother with health conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes is likely to suffer complications during pregnancy. This will help to ensure that mothers get the care they need to reduce the chances of health problems for both themselves and their baby.

Get our research updates

Tommy's funds research across the UK investigating the reasons for pregnancy complications and loss. If you're interested in being kept updated about our research and news from Tommy's, click here.

Read more research

Read Tommy's news and views

  • A nurse taking a patients blood pressure in a hospital room

    News

    Pregnancy is a unique chance to predict health risks to mums

    A recently published article, co-authored by Professor Catherine Williamson from Tommy’s Research Centre at King’s College London, suggests that certain pregnancy complications can indicate future health issues for women.

  • Rising demand for Tommy's midwives in coronavirus lockdown

    News

    Tommy’s awarded grant to help meet rising demand for support during coronavirus lockdown

    Tommy’s has received a grant from the UK Government’s Department for Health and Social Care to support the costs of its PregnancyHub information and support services throughout the summer, due to rising demand in the wake of coronavirus.

  • Tommy's researchers latest findings

    News

    Tommy’s Research Centres continue vital work on pregnancy complications

    Although recruitment to some clinical trials had to be paused when coronavirus hit the UK, scientists at Tommy’s Research Centres across the UK are still hard at work, supporting women and families in our specialist clinics and sharing their latest studies with academic journals.

  • Blog

    Miscarriage during lockdown

    The day before Mother’s Day, and two days before the UK officially went into coronavirus lockdown, Zara Dawson found out she was having a miscarriage. Her third consecutive miscarriage in less than a year, and fourth consecutive loss, after losing her second son Jesse in 2018 to termination for medical reasons.

    Was this information useful?

    Yes No