Lifeline for baby - but how does the placenta ensure your fetus is fed?

11 Jul 2017 00:15:00.000

The placenta is vital in the transfer of the right amount of nutrition and oxygen from the mother to the baby. Any disturbance to the flow of blood could affect the delivery of vital nutrients restricting fetal growth. If the placenta is not working properly this can lead to pre-eclampsia.

Using the very latest wide-bore magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning equipment at the University of Nottingham experts in the School of Physics and Astronomy together with Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust are leading a study to understand how the placenta ensures the right amount of oxygen and nutrients reach the baby in the womb.

Their research, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is being carried out in collaboration with Kings College London in association with the NIH Human Placenta Project — an initiative which aims to revolutionise our understanding of the placenta. The results of the Nottingham study will be used to develop a comprehensive method of assessing placental structure, function and oxygenation and improve the management of women at risk of small babies.

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Call for volunteers

The Nottingham team are looking for a total of 100 volunteers who are booked to deliver their babies at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust. Using MRI scans researchers are observing changes in the blood flow of the placenta and in the baby throughout pregnancy.

Penny Gowland, Professor of Physics, said: “We are using MRI to measure the blood flow and oxygen delivery in the placenta and baby. This is being done over the course of the pregnancy so that we can better understand how the placenta and baby develops. It will help us develop early methods of detecting a poorly functioning placenta.”

Who can take part in the study?

The research team is looking for women who have completed the first five months of pregnancy and everything seems normal as well as pregnant women who have developed pre-eclampsia and/or carrying a small baby.

They are looking at the structure and function of the placenta and, in particular, at how it responds to oxygen. This will be done by seeing how the placenta responds to the mother being given oxygen via a face mask for a few minutes.

The consultant in charge of the research is Dr Nia Jones an associate professor in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Nottingham.

Dr Jones said: “Although MRI scans are not done routinely in pregnancy many women have had such scans performed for clinical reasons with no adverse effects for them or their baby. At present we have no clinical tools to assess the function of the placenta directly, all we are able to do is assess the size and growth of the baby and blood flow in the umbilical cord using ultrasound. This research is exciting as MRI may allow us to identify problems with the function of the placenta before a problem (such as a small baby or pre-eclampsia) happens.”

MRI in research

MRI is increasingly being used as a diagnostic tool in obstetrics, fetal medicine and other specialties.

The scans are being performed in the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre. This state of the art research centre is equipped with the very latest imaging facilities for innovative research in obesity, gastroenterology, liver disease, metabolism (including sports medicine), orthopedics, respiratory medicine, mental health, hearing and radiological sciences, as well as new developments in imaging techniques and equipment.

The study is part of a £2.5m research project led by Mary Rutherford, Professor of Perinatal Imaging and Jo Hajnal, Professor of Imaging Physics at Kings College London. The University of Nottingham is leading on the oxygenation of the placenta.

Case study

Jess Davison is among the volunteers already participating in the study. A specialist registrar in obstetrics and gynaecology at the Queen’s Medical Centre she is expecting her baby on 23 June. She completed her degree in Medicine and her master’s in Medical Education at the University of Nottingham.

Jess said: “I was interested to take part as I think any research which can improve the care of women and their babies is vital. Dr Jones took my consent and, as with any research project, it was made clear I could withdraw at any time. As Dr Jones states, MRI is rarely used clinically. But, it was very exciting to see such clear images of my baby!”

Beacons of Excellence

Precision Imaging is one of six Beacons of Excellence launched by the university as part of a £200 million investment in research. It aims to transfer healthcare with pioneering imaging.

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Notes to editors: 

The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage, consistently ranked among the world's top 100. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our 44,000 students - Nottingham was named University of the Year for Graduate Employment in the 2017 Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, was awarded gold in the TEF 2017 and features in the top 20 of all three major UK rankings. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer and industry partner - locally and globally.

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Story credits

More information is available from Professor Penny Gowland on +44 (0)115 951 4754,; or Dr Nia Wyn Jones, on +44 (0)115 924 9924 Extn 63970 or 61924,
  Lindsay Brooke

Lindsay Brooke - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

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