The PRECISE study: how to spot heart problems earlier in pregnancy

Heart problems in the growing baby are responsible for miscarriage, stillbirths and neonatal death. We want to find a way to spot these problems earlier on in pregnancy.
  • Authors list

    Christoph Lees, Phillip Bennett, Harsha Shah and Lin Foo

Start: 2016

End: 2021

Why do we need this research?

A congenital heart defect, or CHD, is any problem with the structure of the heart that is present from birth. These are responsible for around 20% of miscarriages and stillbirths, and 30% of new-born deaths.

At the moment, CHD is only found when the baby is already 20 weeks old. Our researchers want to use technological advances to find CHD and other similar problems earlier. This will shed light on the causes of miscarriage, and give parents more information to help them make decisions at a difficult time.

What’s happening in this project?

Tommy’s are funding the PRECISE study to investigate whether heart problems can be detected much earlier in pregnancy than currently possible.

In particular, our researchers will use new ‘5D heart scans’ to look at the baby early in pregnancy. Normal ultrasound scans are flat images in two dimensions (2D). Extra ‘dimensions’ add more and more detail: 3D scans show depth, and 4D scans can show motion of the baby in real time. 

So-called ‘5D’ ultrasound scanning is the most advanced, where the scanning process is automated so that the scanner picks up important results on its own. This means that complicated scans – like looking at the structure of a baby’s heart early in pregnancy – can be made much quicker, simpler, and more consistent. 

Our researchers have recruited 201 women to the PRECISE study, and have carried out more than 650 ultrasound scans using 2D and 3D imaging techniques. Scans performed at 8 weeks after conception have shown blood vessel systems which can’t normally be seen using standard 2D ultrasound.

Looking at scans over many weeks during the first trimester, the team are now working out the best time to visualise the heart and other organs.

What difference will this project make?

During this project, our researchers will find out whether new ultrasound technology can reliably detect problems during the first trimester. This will provide scientists with valuable insight about the causes of miscarriage. In the long term, it could provide parents with information at an earlier stage about whether they are at risk of having a miscarriage, or reassurance that their pregnancy looks normal.

Thanks for your interest in our research

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.