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, preventing stillbirth.
  • Author's list

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

    Start date: January 2021
    End date: March 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 low-risk 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 possible 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). So far, they have found that EVs from watermelons can have a beneficial effect on placenta cells grown in the lab.

In this project, our researchers want to find out more about EVs. They plan to extract EVs from a variety of common fruit and vegetables eaten in the UK and study the effect they have on placentas donated by women after they have given birth. Once the team have identified the EVs that work best, they will give these to pregnant mice and rats, and track if the EVs can be found in the womb, placenta or pups. They will assess the effect these EVs have on the health of the placenta, and the number and size of pups the rodents have.

What difference will this project make?

This project will show whether EVs from fruit and veg could improve the growth of pups in the womb, which might lead to clinical trials in humans. EVs from fruit and veg could provide 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.