Finding new treatments to improve placental function and prevent stillbirth

Our researchers are working out the best way of testing new therapies that could be used to improve how the placenta functions and reduce the risk of stillbirth.

Start: September 2017

End: August 2020

In 2016, there were nine stillbirths in the UK every day. It is crucial that we understand more about why stillbirths happen and what we can do to prevent them.

The most common cause of stillbirth is failure of the placenta to provide the baby with the nutrients and oxygen it needs to grow.

To study why the placenta may fail, we usually perform experiments in female mice that are mated at 38–42 weeks old – these mice are classed as having an advanced maternal age and usually have high stillbirth rates and abnormal placentas. However, these mice have such severe abnormalities that we can’t use them to test new therapies that might improve how the placenta functions.

Placental therapies in mice

We want to find out whether moderately aged mice – mated at 28–32 weeks – might provide us with a better model for testing new therapies.

Our initial results show that these mice also have abnormal placentas and that their pups do not grow as big as they should, but they experience far fewer stillbirths than the older mice. We need to do more work to confirm these findings, but we hope that it will be possible to test new placental therapies in these mice.

To find out more, we will explore the ways in which the placentas of moderately aged mice are failing.

Once we have done this, we will test relevant therapies to see if we can improve outcomes in these mice. As it can be difficult to get drugs to the placenta without harming the pup, we will combine our therapies with small molecules called placental homing peptides, which bind only to the surface of the placenta, ensuring that our therapies are delivered straight to where they are needed.

We hope that, by using these moderately aged mice in future research, we can find new therapies that help the placenta to work more effectively, reducing the risk of stillbirth.

The devastating effect of stillbirth

Stillbirth is devastating for families. We have been gathering testimony about the terrible effect of stillbirth on parents and wider family to raise awareness and make the case that more must be done to bring down the statistics.

'We sat on the bed laughing and joking, pushing the worry away. The midwife seemed to be away for ages. When she returned we were taken to a scan room to be scanned. As we walked in the room I knew something wasn’t right as there were three people in the room already. I nervously lay on the bed and after a few minutes the doctor turned to me and said, ‘I’m sorry but there’s no heartbeat.’

'Those words still make me feel sick to my stomach. I just remember screaming and screaming. I looked to David who sat with his head in his hands. I eventually managed to stop screaming and sat and cried uncontrollably. How could this have happened?'

Shelley, whose baby Joseph was stillborn at 37 weeks

Join the fight against baby loss

Tommy's funds research across the UK investigating the reasons for miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. We can keep you updated on ways you can support our work. If you would like to join our fight against baby loss and premature birth, click here.

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