Could plant-based supplements help to improve fetal growth?

We currently have no effective treatments to help babies who are growing too slowly in the womb. Our researchers are finding out whether tiny particles found in fruit and veg can improve how well the placenta is functioning. This could provide a safe treatment to help ensure babies grow normally, which might reduce the chances of stillbirth.
  • Authors list

    Professor Melissa Westwood, Dr Hager Kowash, Dr Anil Day, Dr Lynda Harris, Professor Ed Johnstone, Professor John McLaughlin, Dr Adam Stevens

    Start date: January 2021
    End date: September 2022

  • Research centre

  • Research status

    Ongoing projects

Why do we need this research?

Babies whose growth slows down or stops during pregnancy have an increased risk of stillbirth and death shortly after birth. These babies are also at risk of certain health problems later in life, such as heart disease.

Currently, there are no treatment options available for babies who aren’t growing as they should. The only option is to deliver the baby prematurely, which carries its own risks and increases the chances of health problems later in life.

We need to find safe treatments that can be used to treat women at risk of having a small baby so that we can reduce the chances of stillbirth and give all babies the healthiest start in life. 

What’s happening in this project?

We know that babies are more likely to grow normally if their mothers eat lots of fruit and veg during pregnancy. So far, it hasn’t been clear why this is the case. Researchers funded by Tommy’s have been looking at tiny particles found in fruit and veg called ‘extracellular vesicles’ (EVs). They have found that EVs from watermelons can have a beneficial effect on placenta cells grown in the lab.

In this project, our researchers are finding out more by treating pregnant mice with either watermelon EVs or a placebo. The team will check to see if the EVs can be found in the womb, placenta or pups, and will also assess the effect that these EVs have on the health of the placenta, and on pregnancy outcomes. As well as this, the team are extracting EVs from a variety of other common fruit and veg eaten in the UK and are studying the effect they have on human placentas donated after birth. The EVs that show the most promise will then be tested on pregnant mice. In the future, the team also want to find out whether these EVs can improve outcomes for mice that have a more complicated pregnancy – for example, those with small pups or with pre-eclampsia.

What difference will this project make?

This project will show whether EVs from fruit and veg can improve the growth of pups in the womb, which might lead to clinical trials in humans. EVs from fruit and veg could be a safe treatment for women who are at risk of their babies growing slowly, and ultimately help to prevent stillbirth as well as health problems later in life.