Why Babies Die: Australian Researchers Make Stillbirth Breakthrough

A simple blood test may soon stop the heartbreak of stillbirths for thousands of women around the world.

And it’s a team of Australian researchers that are leading the charge.

The world-first stillbirth breakthrough comes from a team of researchers at Sydney’s Hunter Medical Research Institute. The team, led by Professor Roger Smith AM, found that placenta breakdown may be to blame for many stillbirths.

Professor Smith’s team discovered the placenta releases an enzyme called aldehyde oxidase into the mother’s blood as it breaks down. They are now developing a blood test to identify at-risk babies and deliver them before the placenta fails.

“It certainly is the most exciting project I’ve been involved in so far, with the potential to influence people’s lives around the planet,” says Professor Smith.

He hopes to have the test ready within three to five years. Prof Smith says he hopes the discovery ends the guilt many women feel when their babies die in the womb. Almost one in 100 pregnancies in Australia end in stillbirth.

Mums of stillborn babies, it’s not your fault

“I think it’s really important for mums of stillborn babies to understand that it’s not their fault. This is something that’s happened to the placenta, they had very little or no control over it,” he tells ABC News.

“There was nothing they could do to prevent it. So they shouldn’t feel guilt about it.”

Professor Smith says the problem is that some placentas begin to age weeks before the mother’s due date. This stops the flow of nutrients and oxygen to the baby, with devastating consequences. The team is now looking at ways to suppress the enzyme if placentas start to age and deteriorate too early in pregnancy.

Early deliver to save babies from stillbirth

This will allow obstetricians to step in and deliver a baby early via c-section if the placenta looks like failing.

“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 says that eventually any treatment may also be able to slow the ageing process in other organs of the body “and perhaps even healthy life extension”.

The world-first research is published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

For more information about stillbirth, read our previous article about the brave mum who lost two babies before birth.

Avatar of Nikki Tandy

Nikki is a former news journalist who used to spend her days chasing shady types around town ... until she had kids and went all soft on the inside. She now spends her days cajoling her kids to pick up their damn Lego and eat more fruit.

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