The role of placental blood vessels in growth restriction and stillbirth

Tommy’s researchers have been looking at the blood vessels in the placenta to understand why some babies do not grow as they should, putting them at risk of stillbirth.
  • Authors list

    Professor John Aplin, Nyree Sardena, Professor Melissa Westwood, Dr Adam Stevens, Professor Ed Johnstone

    Start: 2018
    End: 2022

  • Research centre

  • Research status

    Completed projects

Why do we need this research?

Babies who don’t grow as they should in the womb are at greater risk of being stillborn. This may happen because the placenta is failing, meaning that the baby can’t get the oxygen and nutrients it needs to survive and grow.

The placenta contains a network of blood vessels that absorb nutrients and oxygen from the mother or birthing parent’s blood and carry them to the baby. Our researchers had already found that babies who do not grow properly have placentas with a smaller network of blood vessels than normal and they wanted to understand why.

What happened in this project?

Researchers funded by Tommy’s have been looking at the cells that make up blood vessels in the placenta to find out how they grow and survive. The team found that blood vessel cells from the placentas of slow-growing babies were less healthy and less able to communicate with each other than those from uncomplicated pregnancies, which could result in the poor development of blood vessels.

Our researchers also looked at the activity of genes – short sections of DNA that provide cells with instructions for how they should behave – inside special cells that eventually form new blood vessels. The team were able to identify specific genes that appeared to be ‘switched off’ in the placenta cells from slow-growing babies, compared with the cells from healthy placentas.

What difference will this project make?

This project has helped us understand why some placentas are less able to provide oxygen and nutrients to the developing baby, which can lead to slow growth and potentially stillbirth. This work could lead to the development of new treatments that improve blood flow to babies, reducing the chances of them dying in the womb.