Can low levels of taurine make stillbirth more likely?

Tommy’s researchers are looking at how the lack of an important nutrient might harm the placenta during pregnancy, putting women at a higher risk of stillbirth.

When a baby is stillborn, it is often not possible to say why. This can be very distressing for the family. Not only have they suffered the loss of their baby; no one can give them a reason for their pain.

That’s why Tommy’s want to find answers that will not only help us understand why babies are stillborn, but will stop this happening in the future. Often, the first sign that something is not quite right is when the baby starts moving less than normal in the womb. When a baby starts moving less, the risk of stillbirth is increased by around five times. We think that this may be to do with the placenta not getting enough of an important nutrient: taurine.

Read more about how our #movementsmatter campaign is raising awareness of the importance of your baby’s movements

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Taurine is essential for our hearts and muscles to work properly. In particular, our mitochondria – the parts of our cells that make energy – need taurine to work. We think that if cells in the placenta don’t have enough taurine, our mitochondria can’t make enough energy, and the cells will die.

We already know that in women whose babies are moving less than normal, the placenta isn’t working as well as it should. We think that taurine might be the missing link: if the placenta isn’t getting enough, its cells are more likely to become damaged or die off. This could in turn lead to less movement of the baby, and the possibility of stillbirth. Additionally, the placentas of obese women – who we know are at a higher risk of stillbirth – cannot take up as much taurine as women of a healthy weight.

Tommy’s researchers will book at both obese and non-obese women to try and find out how too little taurine can damage the placenta and lead to stillbirth. They will look at samples of the placenta from women who took part in other studies on babies’ movements in the womb. From this, they’ll be able to see how well the placentas were working, and if levels of taurine can be used to predict pregnancy complications and stillbirth.

Looking at the role of mitochondria in stillbirth is an exciting new area of research that hasn’t been looked at before. This project will help us to understand how damage to the placenta can lead to stillbirth, so families can find the answers they need. We can use this knowledge to find new ways of telling when women are at risk, and new treatments that could help stop stillbirths from happening in the future. 

Researchers

Dr Michelle Desforges, Professor Alexander Heazell, Susan Greenwood, Professor Colin Sibley

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Funding

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

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