A new simple blood test could help prevent stillbirth, according to Melbourne researchers.
Stillbirth claims three million lives globally every year and six losses are felt every day in Australia.
“It’s your worst nightmare. All of a sudden you’re just forced to live your worst nightmare. And no warning, nothing,” says Alex Tighe.
After a complication-free pregnancy in 2008, Alex’s son, Jack, was stillborn – and she has no explanation why.
“The day that I lost him I had been at work, I went to the gym at lunch – just doing the things that you normally do as a pregnant person,” said Alex.
“I think if there had been a test, because I had passed every other test…And if there was a test that could say ‘Alex, you just need to stop and give this a chance’. You know, maybe we could have gotten far enough along for him to survive.”
The Melbournian says mothers need “critical information”, so they have the best chance of delivering healthy babies.
Watch Alex Tighe share her story. Post continues after video.
Professor Susan Walker – who also helped Alex with a later pregnancy – is part of the team from University of Melbourne and Mercy Hospital for Women, that are determined to decrease stillbirth statistics.
“What we’re really trying to do with this blood test is see if we can find better ways of detecting the baby that will be small at full-term,” she says.
“So babies that are small, we know, have a four-fold increase in the chance of being stillborn, and if we could identify babies that are destined to be born small at term, then it raises the exciting possibility that if we knew about that in advance, we could monitor them more closely and maybe deliver them before stillbirth occurs.”
The pitfalls of how babies are measured.
Babies are already measured during their mother’s pregnancy but Professor Walker says the methods used have pitfalls.
“At the moment, we measure the mum’s belly with a tape measure and that gives us some idea as to whether we think the baby’s a bit too big or a bit too small, but unfortunately this really only picks about one in five babies that are going to be small at the time of delivery.”
Ultrasounds even “in the best hands in the world” only pick up just over half of the babies that will be born small and Professor Walker and her team want better than 50-50 odds.
The blood test looks at “genetic transcripts” being released from the placenta, to potentially identify a “genetic signature” or a red flag that clearly shows the baby is not growing very well and is destined to be born small.
“People have termed it like a liquid biopsy of the placenta,” says Professor Walker.
“We’re just doing a simple blood test to get a very good idea of the baby’s genetic code.”
When oxygen levels are low, fragments of genetic material called RNA leak out of the placenta and into the mother’s blood.
The researchers are looking to discover these “messenger RNA molecules” that change in response to the environment of the baby. The blood test can then detect if a baby might be low in oxygen or not growing well.
Researchers have collected specimens from 2000 women, who agreed to have a blood test at 28 weeks and 36 weeks – coinciding with established blood tests for expecting mums.
The final specimen came from 32-year-old obstetrician, Fiona Brownfoot, who got involved to try and help.
"No hassle" test.
“Stillbirth is one of the most devastating outcomes of pregnancy and we don’t have a good test to be able to identify those at high-risk," said the obstetrician.
"Especially being pregnant myself now, it would just be shattering to get that diagnoses for both me and my family so I’m a very much a strong supporter on trying to help detect those at risk of stillbirth,” she added.
The expecting mother said gathering an extra tube of blood was “no hassle at all”.
“To think it might be able to detect stillbirth, I think it would be one that many women would be interested in.”
The researchers are currently collating their data in the hopes of developing a world-first test and would like to eventually have a baby-growth “report card” for every pregnant woman in Australia.
Professor Walker says: “If and when the time comes in perhaps 10 years or so for my own daughters to have children, my wish is that they can enjoy a safe transition to motherhood.’