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Midwife goes back to the lab for answers

Midwife Tracey Mills has swapped the maternity unit for the lab to try to find out why some babies don’t develop well in the womb – and gained a PhD in the process. A midwife at St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester since 1993, Tracey has spent four years studying blood vessels in placentas, with the help of around a hundred new mothers at the hospital. The placenta transfers oxygen and nutrients from the mother to help the baby grow. Tracey discovered that reactive oxygen species chemicals which are thought to cause heart disease and cancers also affect the function of tiny blood vessels in the placenta. Reactive oxygen species are increased in the placenta in pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia and fetal growth restriction, and may be the cause of reduced blood flow which impairs the transfer of oxygen and nutrients to the baby compromising its growth and development in the womb. In the next stage of her research at the Maternal and Fetal Health Research Group, The University of Manchester, Tracey will try to identify the exact causes of reduced blood flow in the placenta in pregnancy complications such as fetal growth restriction, and ways to prevent or treat the problem. “I’m very proud of achieving the PhD. It is unusual for midwives to do laboratory based scientific research,” she said. “I hadn’t been in a laboratory since I was 16, so it was a very steep learning curve, but I had fantastic supervisors who are experts in their field.” She was encouraged to complete the PhD by Phil Baker, Professor of Fetal and Maternal Health at St Mary’s, which also partly funded her work. While continuing with the next stage of her research, Tracey plans to return to St Mary’s part-time so she can also spend time delivering babies and helping mums-to-be.