Using MRI to study the placenta

Dr Emma Ingram, Dr Ed Johnstone, Dr David Morris, Dr Jo Naish, Dr Jenny Myers, Professor Colin Sibley, Dr Fiona Denison, Professor Jane Norman

We still know surprisingly little about how the placenta works and how its structure and function change during pregnancy. MRI can change that.

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 to know how well the placenta is working during pregnancy.

At the Manchester Tommy’s centre, we have developed an exciting new way of looking at the placenta while the baby is growing. This 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: we can see down to the level of a single proton. Like this, we can look at blood flow, how oxygen is being used, and tell apart different types of tissue.

We have looked at over 60 women, using MRI to study how the placenta works in healthy pregnancies, and in women whose babies aren’t growing properly. The women had two scans taken of the placenta over the course of pregnancy. The results showed a clear difference in the placentas of healthy pregnancies compared to when the baby isn’t growing properly. We found that the MRI technique gave us clear results which are not attainable using ultrasound scanning. Using the results of the scans, we have created a method of MRI that will tell us if a placenta is normal, or damaged, while the baby is still in the womb. 

These techniques will help us to find out if babies are at risk during the pregnancy. We’ll then be able to treat the mother, or deliver the baby early if it is struggling.

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This study is fully funded by Tommy's and takes place in a Tommy's centre

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