Could plant-based supplements help to improve the growth of babies in the womb?

Our researchers are finding out whether tiny particles found in fruit and veg can be used to treat babies who are growing too slowly, potentially reducing 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: 2021
    End date: 2024

  • 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 ways of treating women and birthing people 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 looked at tiny particles found in fruit and veg called ‘extracellular vesicles’ (EVs) and 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. So far, the team have shown that treatment with watermelon EVs improves the weight and structure of the placenta, while having no negative effects on the progression of pregnancy. The mixture of bacteria in the mothers’ guts was also altered by treatment with watermelon EVs. The team believe that this could affect the growth of the placenta by changing the way that it interacts with the mother’s gut, and they are carrying out more experiments to try and understand how this works.

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 and birthing people who are at risk of their babies growing slowly, and ultimately help to prevent stillbirth as well as health problems later in life.