Using MRI to detect if the placenta is being rejected by the immune system

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

During a condition called chronic histiocytic intervillositis, the immune system rejects the placenta, which can lead to stillbirth. Our researchers are studying whether MRI scans could be used to diagnose it early, so that doctors can intervene to reduce risk of babies being stillborn.

Start: March 2015

End: March 2020

Why do we need this research?

If the growth of the baby in the womb slows or stops, the chances of stillbirth increase 8-fold. Slow growth, known as fetal growth restriction, is often caused by the placenta not working properly.

One cause of an unhealthy placenta is a rare condition called chronic histiocytic intervillositis (CHI). This is when the immune system rejects the placenta as if it was an ‘alien’ object in the body. CHI can increase the risk of stillbirths and miscarriages in subsequent pregnancies. However, there is currently no way to diagnose CHI during pregnancy, only after birth.

What’s happening in this project?

At the Manchester Tommy’s centre, our scientists have developed an exciting new way of looking at the placenta while the baby is growing. It uses Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI, a technique that uses a strong magnetic field to look inside the body. It allows us to see how the body is working in far more detail than ultrasound.

Previously, while using MRI to study a group of women experiencing fetal growth restriction, the team noticed that one mother’s placenta looked different to the others. The mother was later diagnosed with CHI, which led the research team to speculate that it might be possible to use MRI to diagnose CHI early.

The researchers are now working to confirm this chance finding. They will conduct a small study of 20 pregnant women experiencing fetal growth restriction, including those who potentially have CHI. Their placentas will be studied during pregnancy using MRI as well as after birth.

What difference will this project make?

This research will provide the evidence needed for a larger clinical trial to use MRI to detect problems with the placenta. If the team’s findings can be confirmed, it could lead to new ways to diagnose CHI and other placental problems much earlier than is currently possible. This could mean that women could receive the most appropriate treatment for them, and ultimately reduce the risk of their babies being stillborn.

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