Preventing stillbirth: the role of the immune system in rejecting the placenta

Tommy’s scientists are studying chronic histiocytic intervillositis – a condition in which the mother’s immune system rejects the placenta, leading to stillbirth or miscarriage.
  • Author's list

    Dr Ian Crocker, Chloe Brady, Dr Clare Tower, Professor Alexander Heazell

Start: September 2018

End: September 2022

Why do we need this research?

Chronic histiocytic intervillositis (CHI) is a rare condition in which the mother’s immune system does not accept the placenta in the womb. If a woman has suffered from CHI in a previous pregnancy then it can happen again in subsequent pregnancies, putting her at risk of multiple stillbirths or miscarriages.

We want to know more about the causes of CHI so that we can better identify, manage and prevent the condition.

What’s happening in this project?

Antibodies are molecules that recognise substances or organisms in the body as ‘alien’ and tell the immune system to attack them. Researchers supported by Tommy’s have already found that most pregnant women with CHI have unusual antibodies. If these antibodies think the placenta is alien, they could be the reason why the mother’s immune system rejects the placenta in CHI.

A similar situation occurs when people receive organ transplants. Sometimes the recipient’s immune system rejects the organ because it has come from a different person’s body. Over time however, transplant doctors have managed to improve methods to reduce the chances organs being rejected and have developed treatments to dampen the immune system if necessary. Our researchers believe that similar techniques could be used to test for and manage CHI.

Our scientists are now studying these unusual antibodies to understand how they are produced by the immune system, and why they recognise the placenta as alien.  The team are also studying how immune cells called macrophages are involved rejecting the placenta in CHI.

What difference will this project make?

Our researchers hope to create a screening tool for CHI that would help us predict which women are at risk of stillbirth, either during their pregnancy or even before they conceive. These women could then receive medicines which dampen the immune system to help prevent the loss of their baby. In the future, it may even be possible to develop new therapies to treat CHI and so prevent stillbirths and miscarriages associated with the condition.

Join the fight against baby loss

Tommy's funds research across the UK investigating the reasons for miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth.  If you would like to join our fight against baby loss and premature birth, click here.