Understanding the causes of stillbirth by studying the placenta

We still don’t know enough about the changes in the placenta that lead to stillbirth. In this project, our researchers are using cutting-edge techniques to study the placenta and find out more. This will mean that, in the future, doctors can give parents the answers they need about why their baby died.
  • Authors list

    Professor Alexander Heazell, Dr Alan Kerby, Dr Gauri Batra, Dr Nicole Graham

    Start date: March 2021
    End date: April 2022

  • Research centre

  • Research status

    Ongoing projects

Why do we need this research?

In all too many cases, there is not an obvious explanation as to why a baby was stillborn. These deaths remain ‘unexplained’, which can be very hard for grieving parents who want to know why their baby died.

One of the ways that pathologists investigate the cause of stillbirth is by looking at the placenta under a microscope, although it is possible that some important changes could be missed when looking at the placenta in this way. This means that, even after an investigation, the parents may still have no explanation for their baby’s death

What’s happening in this project?

In this project, our researchers are using new techniques to study the placentas of babies who are stillborn. They hope that this will reveal new information about the placenta, which could give more parents the answers they need about why their baby died.

The team have already developed a new way of studying the placenta where computer software is used to analyse the microscopic images, revealing patterns that are not obvious to the human eye. The researchers used this technique to compare the placentas from 25 women who had a stillbirth with their placentas from a subsequent pregnancy. They found that placentas from the same mother were similar in both pregnancies, suggesting that problems with the placenta can happen again. This may explain why women who have had a stillbirth are more likely to experience pregnancy complications in a subsequent pregnancy.

The team are now carrying out a larger study, in which they will analyse 105 placentas from pregnancies that ended in stillbirth; 60 where the cause of stillbirth is known and 45 from cases of unexplained stillbirth. By studying the first 60 placentas under the microscope and using the computer software to analyse the images, our scientists want to identify changes that are associated with different causes of death. The team will then look at the placentas where the cause of stillbirth is not explained, to see if the same changes are present in them.

What difference will this project make?

By using cutting-edge techniques to study the placenta after stillbirth, more parents may be able to get an explanation for why their baby died. This research will also help scientists understand stillbirth better, which could lead to them developing new ways of preventing it from happening.