New research suggests that stillbirths may be triggered by aging placentas, and the hope is that a blood test for stillbirth risk is on the horizon in the next three to five years.
According to the World Health Organization, a staggering 2.6 million babies are stillborn, leaving their families heartbroken and often without reason for the loss. An Australian researcher has discovered it may be possible to have a test that alerts doctors of an impending death.
Professor Roger Smith is with the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) in Australia and believes that many stillbirths are triggered by placentas that begin deteriorating. He says that people age at different rates, and so it stands to reason that some placentas age more rapidly than others.
Because the placenta connects a baby to its mother through the umbilical cord, it is critical that it maintains function. Professor Smith believes that some placentas age more rapidly than others, which slowly starves the growing baby of nutrients and oxygen that are imperative to its survival. If the placenta is not working, oxygen levels of the baby fall, and the baby will die, says Professor Smith.
Professor Smith hopes his team will come up with a test that will alert doctors of impending danger by recognizing elevated enzyme levels in a mother’s blood. Deteriorating placentas give off an enzyme called aldehyde oxidase, and recognizing the presence of that enzyme could be the difference between life and death in many babies.
He hopes that doctors will be able to use a future diagnostic test to catch signs of aging placenta and possibly predict and prevent the occurrence of stillbirth by performing cesarean sections before the baby dies. That said, he recognizes that babies before 27 weeks have better chances of survival, and he’d recommend that in women who have elevated enzyme levels before 27 weeks, pharmaceuticals that stop the aging of the placenta be given, providing the baby with more time in utero for better survival rates out of the womb.
“If a baby is too early in pregnancy to be delivered, we may be able to give drugs that inhibit that enzyme to slow the ageing of the placenta, and allow the baby to stay in the uterus until it is likely to survive when it’s born,” Professor Smith said.
Aldehyde oxidase is also responsible for signs of aging in other places of the human body, and if his team can come up with a way to limit its presence in the body, he says the possibilities in the medical field are endless. His work could lead to slower levels of aging of other tissue, and ultimately healthy life extension.
That said, his goal is to reduce the heartbreaking number of stillbirths in Australia and in the world, saying it’s so important that women know that stillbirth is not their fault and they had no control over it. He hopes his work will help relieve the guilt so many moms of children born still feel.