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Manchester scientists to lead stillbirth research projects

In a bid to help discover why 17 babies each day in the UK are stillborn or die early in life, a figure that has barely changed for 20 years, scientists in Manchester have embarked on two important research programmes. Dr Alexander Heazell of the Maternal and Fetal Health Research Group based at St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester has been awarded funding by Sands, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity, to carry out the research. The funding for the programmes was raised by the Tunbridge Wells group of Sands. The first project involves a survey of doctors, midwives and pathologists providing maternity care across the UK, to identify the needs of staff who support parents in deciding whether to have a post-mortem on their baby. The survey forms part of an international study initiated by the Australian and New Zealand Stillbirth Alliance (ANZSA) and endorsed by the International Stillbirth Alliance (ISA). Stillbirth is a distressing experience for parents and the idea of a post-mortem examination of the baby can be a difficult prospect to face. Currently there are no national guidelines to assist doctors and midwives with the processes for investigating a stillbirth, or how to broach this difficult topic. “We hope that the results of this study will help identify areas of training and education that could be addressed to improve the care given to parents at the time of stillbirth,” said Dr Heazell. “Knowing why a baby was stillborn through post-mortem investigations is important, as the same problem may affect the mother’s future pregnancies, leading to complications or even another stillbirth.” The second research project involves studying placenta tissue samples donated by women who have lost a baby to stillbirth. The placenta is normally responsible for transferring oxygen and nutrients to the developing baby. In cases of stillbirth, several different features have been seen in the placenta, and in some cases these may help to determine the cause of stillbirth. Dr Heazell’s team will first investigate placenta tissue from a known cause of stillbirth, to discover whether microscopic features in the structure of the placenta vary depending on the cause of stillbirth. They will then apply what they have learned to 50 ‘unexplained’ stillbirths, to see if the cause can be identified. Each year, one in 200 UK pregnancies continues to end in stillbirth.