PUFFIN: using MRI scans to detect complications of pregnancy hypertension

Professor 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.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, affects around 5% of pregnancies and has risks 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, it can cause stillbirth. 

If we can identify which women are at high risk of complications associated with hypertension, this would help us to ensure they receive the right level of care.

Similarly, 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. 

We 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, we hope to improve our ability to detect abnormalities. 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 our MRI investigations, we also want to look at proteins and other substances in the mother’s blood. We are particularly interested in substances that are involved in placental blood vessel development. 

Combining these findings with MRI pictures of the placenta would help us improve detection of women and babies at risk.

The PUFFIN study is currently in the recruitment phase. So far, we have done MRI scans and taken blood samples from 13 women with uncomplicated pregnancies, 13 women with chronic hypertension and 4 women with pre-eclampsia. 

We are planning to continue this research over the next 12 months. 

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This research is funded by Tommy's and takes place in a Tommy's centre.

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