Comparing 2D and 3D MRI to study the placenta

Dr Emma Ingram, Dr Ed Johnstone, Professor Alex Heazell, Dr Penny Cristinacce

Our scientists are developing new ways to use MRI scans to study the placenta, so that we can understand how it works and how its structure and function change during pregnancy. This will help us prevent complications like stillbirth and miscarriage.

Start: March 2015

End: March 2020

Why do we need this research?

If the placenta doesn’t work properly, the baby can be badly affected. Unhealthy placentas can lead to miscarriage, pre-eclampsia, growth restriction and stillbirth. By studying the placentas of women after birth, we know a lot more than we used to about how they work. But this isn’t enough: we need find ways to check the health of the placenta during pregnancy.

What’s happening in this project?

At the Manchester Tommy’s centre, our scientists have developed new methods for looking at the placenta during pregnancy using Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI scans. This technique uses a strong magnetic field to look inside the body.

The team have previously developed an MRI technique to measure how well placentas absorb oxygen, which is essential for the growing baby. Using MRI scans, they have shown that the placenta of women whose babies are growing slowly don’t absorb oxygen in the same way that normal healthy placentas do.

This measurement is currently done using a single MR image, represent one ‘slice’ of the placenta. However, the placenta is a large organ, and different parts of it may take up oxygen at different speeds – particularly if the placenta is unhealthy.

Our scientists have now developed a new technique which takes multiple MR images to provide a 3D picture of the whole placenta. They think that this will provide a much better measure of how the placenta absorbs oxygen than a single ‘2D’ image.

The team are now comparing the 2D and 3D MRI techniques side-by-side to work out if the 3D method is better than the 2D version.

What difference will this project make?

Our researchers hope that their work could lead to new ways to accurately assess the health of the placenta during pregnancy. This would enable doctors to spot any problems early, and treat the mother or deliver the baby early if it is struggling. Therefore this research could eventually help to reduce the risk of stillbirth.

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