A special appeal has helped put researchers on the brink of developing a life-saving blood test
Every day in Australia, six families experience the devastating loss of a child to stillbirth. One in 130 Australian families are affected. Despite huge advances in many aspects of maternal care, the number of lives lost to stillbirth remains alarmingly high.
However, research being undertaken at the University of Melbourne is aiming to change that and to break the silence around stillbirth. A simple blood test that could help identify babies most at risk of stillbirth is tantalisingly close.
This potentially life-saving work has recently been supported by more than 800 donors to a University fundraising appeal.
While all the exact causes of stillbirth are not yet fully understood, it is known that one of the biggest contributors is fetal growth restriction, which can occur when the fetus does not receive enough placental nutrition or oxygen within the womb. This can happen for many reasons, but the end result is the same: a fetus that fails to grow well, and is three to four times more likely to be stillborn.
Measuring the mother’s abdomen and using ultrasound still only detects around 20-30 per cent of small babies, so the research team is focusing its efforts on finding ways of establishing if the placenta is working effectively to identify babies at risk of being stillborn.
The research is being led by Professor Susan Walker, Sheila Handbury Chair of Maternal Fetal Medicine, Head of the University’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Director of Perinatal Medicine at the Mercy Hospital for Women, and Professor Stephen Tong, leader of the Mercy-based Translational Obstetrics Group.
Together with their team of clinicians and scientists, they are undertaking a major clinical study to better identify babies experiencing fetal growth restriction.
“We have identified a distinctive signature in the mothers’ blood that can indicate when a baby is destined to be born small,” says Professor Walker.
“Using the most sophisticated techniques, we have isolated both genetic and protein markers originating from the placenta. Measuring these markers of placental health will enable us to identify babies that are not growing well, or where that placenta is not functioning optimally.
By identifying babies at risk, monitoring them closely, and expediting delivery, we hope to bring on the day when the rate of stillbirth falls – a day which has not occurred for the last three decades.
Thanks to 808 donors – more than 500 of whom had never previously made a gift through the University – $110,989 has already been raised to support this important work.
Every dollar generously donated to this appeal is being used to further refine and develop the blood test that will assess placental health and identify babies previously not recognised as being in jeopardy.
It is the team’s hope that, through the support of donors, more of these babies will be brought safely home.
Many families affected by stillbirth also took the time to share their stories of loss with the team, and their enthusiasm for Professor Walker’s work.
One Melbourne woman wrote about her tragic loss in 1964. Receiving the appeal gave her the long-awaited opportunity to tell her story and look for closure to the tragedy she had experienced more than 50 years ago.
Like many who experience this tragedy, her baby was at full-term, but when she arrived at the hospital nursing staff could not find a heartbeat. She wrote that she could “still hear the dismayed gasp of the midwife” as she realised the baby had died.
At the time, medical staff told the grieving mother that her daughter’s death was probably due to a defect of the heart or central nervous system, but offered no possible cause for such a defect.
“After four days I was sent home … I was not given a chance to hold my baby … Nobody asked what I wanted,” she wrote. “I learned the hard lesson that anyone can be a statistic.
“Yes, it was a silent tragedy, but the information about your research has prompted me to break my silence and do what I can to prevent others having to suffer the loss of a newborn baby.”
Professor Walker says she was grateful to those who shared their stories.
It is a reminder to us that even though many of these stories date back over several decades, families never forget the babies they were unable to bring home.
Through the support of generous donors, and the incredible work of Professor Walker and her team, we’re one step closer to reducing preventable stillbirth.