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Science Says It Might Be Possible to Prevent Stillbirth

by Lisa René LeClair

Photograph by Twenty20

Stillbirth—defined as the birth of an infant that has died in the womb after having survived the first 20 weeks of pregnancy—has baffled doctors for centuries.

Though many theories exist surrounding the causes of fetal death, the most common include problems with the placenta and birth defects. Many scientists also have been pointing the finger specifically at placental abruption (the separation of the placenta from the uterine lining) and preeclampsia (a pregnancy-related form of high blood pressure).

However, a new study at Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) in Australia suggests that deteriorating or prematurely aging placentas are actually to blame for this phenomenon. If this theory is correct, and researchers are able to find a way to detect the early onset of this condition, then alerting obstetricians when a baby is in danger may one day be an option for parents.

According to Professor Roger Smith, who led the study, he and his colleagues hope to develop a test in the next three to five years that would detect elevated levels of aldehyde oxidase, an enzyme that is emitted by organs in a mother’s bloodstream as she ages.

“It’s possible that we’ll be able to develop diagnostic tests to pick up in the mother’s blood the signs of aging of the placenta, and therefore predict this devastating event, so that the obstetricians can perform a caesarean section and get the baby out before the baby dies,” said Smith.

So, can it work? The short answer is yes, but it could be a challenge for infants who are unable to stay put until mom hits the 27-week mark, when chances of survival are greater. Even so, we may have a backup plan.

According to Smith, “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 aging of the placenta, and allow the baby to stay in the uterus until it is likely to survive when it’s born.”

But wait, it gets better. If scientists are able to restrict this enzyme, they might be able to prevent it from causing damage to other tissues unrelated to pregnancy.

“It’s possible that if we develop different ways of stopping this enzyme working to cause damage, it may lead to lower levels of aging in other tissues and perhaps even healthy life extension,” says Smith.

Stillbirth is a shocking paradox that affects more than 25,000 families each year. Often, women will blame themselves for something like this, even though they are not at fault.

“This is something that’s happened to the placenta," Smith explains. "There was nothing they could do to prevent it. So they shouldn’t feel guilt about it.”

Easy for him to say, but moms are masters of disguise. We can tuck our feelings down so deep that no one sees the pain. If you find yourself in the throes of the unthinkable, support is right here at your fingertips. The stories are endless, but perhaps one will resonate and get you through another day.

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