Could plant-based supplements help to improve fetal growth?

Professor Melissa Westwood, Dr Lynda Harris, Professor Ed Johnstone

We currently have no effective treatments to help babies who are growing too slowly in the womb. Our researchers are studying the effects of tiny particles found in fruit and vegetables on the placenta. This could provide a safe treatment to help ensure babies grow normally, preventing stillbirth.

Start: October 2020

End: September 2021

Why do we need this research?

Babies whose growth slows down or stops during pregnancy have an increased risk of stillbirth and death shortly after birth. These babies are also at risk of certain health problems later in life, such as heart disease.

Currently there are no treatments options available for babies who aren’t growing as they should. The only option is to deliver the baby prematurely, which carries its own risks and increases the chances of health problems later in life.

We need to find treatments to prevent complications which could lead to stillbirth, and give all babies the best possible start in life.

What’s happening in this project?

We know that babies are more likely to grow normally if their mothers eat lots of fruit and vegetables during pregnancy. So far it hasn’t been clear why this is the case. But researchers funded by Tommy’s have discovered that tiny particles called ‘extracellular vesicles’ (EVs) found in fruit and vegetables can have a beneficial effect on placenta cells grown in the lab.

In this project, our researchers want to study these EVs further. They plan to extract EVs from a variety of common fruit and veg eaten in the UK, and study the effect they have on placenta cells grown in the lab.

The team will also study EVs consumed by pregnant mice and rats, and track if the EVs can be found in their uterus, placenta or fetuses. They will assess the effect these EVs have on the health of the placenta, and the number and size of the pups the rodents have.

What difference will this project make?

This project will show whether EVs from fruit and veg could improve the growth of fetuses in the womb, which might lead to clinical trials in humans. EVs from fruit and veg could provide a safe treatment for women who are at risk of their babies growing slowly, and ultimately help to prevent stillbirth and later health problems.

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