The placenta is the literal lifeline between mom and baby. A new prototype device could help physicians identify and monitor placental insufficiency throughout pregnancy.
In a normal pregnancy, the placenta attaches to the wall of the uterus. Throughout fetal development, the umbilical cord carries nutrients to the fetus, and carries fetal waste back to the placenta.
Placental insufficiency is the term used when a placenta does not function as it should. Pregnancy complications like diabetes and preeclampsia can impact placental development, and function while lifestyle choices such as smoking and recreational drug can adversely affect the placenta and developing fetus.
Some of the dangerous placental abnormalities that can impact the health of mother and child include:
- Placental previa: Growth of the placenta that covers the cervix
- Placental abruption: Detachment of the placenta from the uterine wall prior to delivery is an emergency for both child and mother
- Placenta accreta: Growth and adherence of the placenta into the uterus during pregnancy may lead to C-section and hysterectomy
At present, ultrasound is commonly used to image the baby and uterus to determine fetal growth and placental placement. While an ultrasound is non-invasive and can depict the position of the placenta, it does not provide any insight into placental oxygen, another critical factor in fetal growth and survival. While MRI imaging can provide this information, MRI imaging is not practical for pregnancy monitoring or bedside.
Researchers at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child and Human Development (NICHD) are developing a wearable monitor for pregnant women that can provide an early alert for complications and problems with placental oxygenation. Because the device is small and wireless it could be used for continuous monitoring in potentially high-risk pregnancies.
A study published in the Biomedical Optics Express discusses the device and the benefits of understanding placental health before delivery. The device uses near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) that can measure oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin through layers of tissue.
In this small study, 12 pregnant women volunteered for placental tissue oxygenation assessment conducted during their prenatal course of care. All of the participants had anterior (attached on the front of the uterus) placentas.
When the prototype device was placed and held on the abdomen by nursing staff, researchers were able to measure blood oxygenation saturation in the study participants. Of the 12 women, five had pregnancy complications including a short cervix, excess amniotic fluid (polyhydramnios), and high blood pressure (hypertension). Placental oxygenation of women with pregnancy complications was 69.9 percent on average. Healthy placental oxygenation is approximately 75.3 percent, a difference that could impact fetal health
Still in development, the sensor may eventually help healthcare providers identify and treat pregnancy complications before they become a threat to mom or baby.
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