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Insight

Early testing of placenta should reduce birth injury to mothers and babies

Jenny Urwin
07/09/2021
Serious pregnancy disorders affect roughly one in 10 pregnant women and can lead to difficult labours needing more medical intervention and sometimes injury to the baby that create lifelong issues.

I recently dealt with a case involving the Stockport NHS Foundation Trust on behalf of a child who suffered severe quadriplegic cerebral palsy because midwives failed to properly respond to signs of his mother's pre-eclampsia. Had there been early warning of the mother's condition, it could have changed the outcome.

Unfortunately, potentially life-threatening complications – such as high blood pressure and preeclampsia – tend only to be diagnosed during the second or third trimester, by which time they may already have had serious consequences for the health of the mother and her developing baby and can even be fatal.

Now, a new study from the University of Cambridge has found that when hormone levels in the placenta are tested early, they can predict which women will have serious pregnancy complications, including preeclampsia.

The placenta, which develops during pregnancy, drives many of the changes that take place in a woman's body during pregnancy. It connects the developing baby to the mother and serves as the baby's lungs, kidneys, gut and liver, and carries oxygen and nutrients to the foetus while secreting hormones and discarding waste. Despite its importance, the placenta is notoriously difficult to study in pregnant women not least because of the risks of doing so.

The researchers found that hormonal biomarkers from the placenta could indicate which women will have pregnancy complications. And the good news is, these biomarkers are present from the first trimester of pregnancy.

For example, they discovered that abnormal levels of hormones were present in the mother's blood as early as week 12 of gestation in women who developed gestational diabetes, a complication usually diagnosed at around 24-28 weeks. Obviously, earlier diagnosis of complications gives doctors and maternity clinicians the opportunity to prevent the disease, or to better protect women and babies from the most harmful complications.

The study team is now working to assess whether these discoveries can improve clinical care in the future, either through earlier diagnosis or to provide new opportunities to treat pregnancy complications by targeting the placenta.

Such insight can prepare women and their doctors early and enable them to come up with an appropriate birth plan to keep the mother and baby safe.

Find out more about making a birth injury claim.

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