Research and medical terms explained

Scientific lingo can be hard to wrap your head around! Here are some terms you may come across in our research projects.

Autoimmune disease

Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system attacks the body’s own, healthy tissue. There are many different types, including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. 


Biomarkers are simply substances made by the body – for example a certain type of protein – that we can use to give us clues about what the body is doing. This means we can look at biomarkers to find ways of diagnosing or predicting diseases, helping scientists and doctors understand more about conditions affecting pregnancy. 

Body Mass Index (BMI)

BMI is a way of working out whether you are a healthy weight for your height. A BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese. Read more...


The cervix is a small canal that connects the vagina to the womb. The opening of the cervix into the womb is called the internal os, while the opening into the vagina is the external os. 

The cervix is a physical barrier against infection, and also makes substances that help to fight off harmful micro-organisms, protecting the baby in the womb. During pregnancy, the cervix changes size and shape because of the baby growing. If it gets too short, too early, there is a high risk of a woman going into labor prematurely. 

Not long before a woman goes into labour, the cervix gets softer and more stretchy so that the baby is able to leave the womb. This is called cervical ripening.  

C-Reactive Protein (CRP)

CRP is a protein found in the blood that is used as a marker for inflammation. High levels of CRP are made when the body reacts to a harmful stimulus, such as infection. 


Chromosomes are the structures in our cells where our DNA – the genetic information that makes us who we are – is kept. 


This is another word for the lining of the womb. During pregnancy, the placenta attaches to the endometrium to supply the baby with oxygen and nutrients. 


Enzymes are proteins made by the body that help us carry out the chemical reactions we need to survive. 

Glycaemic index (GI)

Glycaemic index, or GI, measures the effect of a food on a person’s blood level. Eating foods with a low GI geneally means that sugar is released more slowly into the blood. As there is no sudden 'spike,' it should be easier for the body to maintain its blood sugar levels. 


Constant high blood pressure, or chronic hypertension, is one of the most common chronic problems in women around the age they might have children (chronic illnesses exist for a long time, or keep on coming back). If blood pressure is high, your heart has to work harder to pump blood around your body to supply you and your baby with nutrients and oxygen.

During pregnancy, chronic hypertension can lead to serious problems for mother and baby, and is one of the main causes of maternal death in the UK. Mothers are at risk of stroke and damage to their kidneys, while their babies may be born early or underweight. Chronic hypertension also increases the likelihood of pre-eclampsia.


Inflammation is one of the body’s responses to harm – whether this is caused by microorganisms, harmful chemicals, or physical damage. Symptoms usually includes redness, heat, pain and swelling. 

Large for gestational age (LGA)

Babies that are large for their gestational age are bigger than normal given how long they have been growing in the womb. This is more likely to happen to the babies of women who have diabetes, or are obese. 

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

This is a type of scan that uses powerful magnets to create a picture of the structures inside the body. It is safe to use in pregnancy and can give scientists and doctors a detailed pictures of how the body is working. 

NICE guidelines

These are clinical standards published by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. They advise doctors and medical professionals the best way to treat and manage medical problems. 

Pilot trial

Pilot studies or trials are small, early studies carried out to test the effectiveness or safety of a particular treatment. Often, they are used to indicate whether a larger trial would be useful or not. Because they are small in size, their results aren’t definitive, but give suggestions of what to expect from a larger trial. 


Placebos are designed so that they cannot be told apart from a real drug or treatment, while having no medical effect. This allows scientists to see if a drug really makes a difference to a condition. Sometimes, simply thinking that you are taking medication can make you feel better – the placebo effect. So, if a drug really works, it should be more effective than taking a placebo. 


Prophylactic treatment is given before any signs of disease, and aims to prevent rather than cure illness. 

Randomised control trial (RCT)

These are a type of clinical trial where people are put into groups at random. One of these groups is given the treatment being tested, while the other is the 'control' group. People in the control group may be given a placebo, the current most effective treatment, or no treatment at all. In a double-blind RCT, neither the patient nor the doctor know which group the patient is in. These are generally thought to be the best way of testing the effectiveness and safety of new treatments.

Recurrent miscarriage

Recurrent miscarriage means having three or more miscarriages in a row. It affects around 1 in every 100 couples trying for a baby. 

Small for gestational age (SGA)

Babies that are small for their gestational age are smaller in size than normal given how long they have been growing in the womb. This may be a sign of fetal growth restriction. 

  1. Martin, Elizabeth. 2015. Concise Medical Dictionary (9th ed.). Oxford University Press.
  2. NICE guidelines. 2010. Hypertension in pregnancy: diagnosis and management. (accessed January 2017)
  3. King’s College Hospital NHS. Antenatal hypertension (high blood pressure) in pregnancy. (accessed January 2017)
  4. NICE guidelines (accessed January 2017)
  5. NHS Choices. Miscarriage. (accessed January 2017)