Doctor awarded £1.14 million to develop new methods to identify those at risk of stillbirth

A Manchester researcher has received £1.14 million to develop pioneering new methods to identify those at risk of stillbirth, a devastating tragedy which sees approximately 4,000 babies stillborn every year in the UK.

Dr Alex Heazell, Senior Clinical Lecturer in Obstetrics at Saint Mary’s Hospital and The University of Manchester has been awarded the funding by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) as part of a five year Clinician Scientist Fellowship. With this funding Dr Heazell hopes to develop a test which reliably identifies babies at risk of stillbirth.

The UK is currently ranked 33rd for stillbirth rates out of 35 high-income countries. Even with statistics like this, researchers still know relatively little as to why some women will have a stillborn child. This means Dr Heazell and his colleagues’ research is vital, to find out new information around risk factors which could help future pregnant women and their families.

The funding will allow Dr Heazell and his team to analyse results from all studies that measure how well the placenta works. From this work they will be able to identify which tests of the placenta best identify infants at risk of stillbirth, by comparing those who had an additional placental test compared to those who did not.

“We hope the results of this research will identify which indicators of placental dysfunction are the most reliable in predicting poor pregnancy outcome in women who are at risk of stillbirth,” said Dr Heazell.

“By using these indicators we can then assess whether delivery, depending on the results, improves pregnancy outcome. Through this we hope to provide Obstetricians with proven indicators to help identify those pregnancies at risk of stillbirth so that babies can be born safely.”

Dr Heazell is also Clinical Director of the Tommy’s Maternal and Fetal Health Research Centre, based at Saint Mary’s, which is one of three Centres in the UK funded by Tommy’s the baby charity. The aim of the Centre is to understand the causes of stillbirth, develop new diagnostic tools, identify babies at risk and prevent stillbirths, and develop national guidelines for health professionals. As part of the work underway at the Centre Dr Heazell and colleagues have set up the Rainbow Clinic, a specialist service for parents who have experienced a stillbirth in a previous pregnancy.

Jennifer and family

Jennifer Iddon and her family

The clinic provides parents, such as Jennifer Iddon and her husband Mark from Eccles, with intensive screening for complications in subsequent pregnancy and additional psychological support. Jennifer explains: “Being pregnant again, following the stillbirth of our son Alexander, in 2011, was an extremely stressful and anxious time. However, the monitoring, care and support received at the Rainbow Clinic was invaluable and made the pregnancy experience more bearable and our daughter Isabella was born at Saint Mary’s on the 27th August 2013 as healthy and happy baby. The team at the clinic were extremely professional and caring and their passion for their work is evident.”