Wellbeing of Women researchers have identified a cause of small babies during pregnancy, leading to new treatments that could help them grow fully and prevent premature birth.
Having a small baby in the womb increases the risk of premature birth and even stillbirth. When a baby is born small, they have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes later in life.
Known as Fetal Growth Restriction (FGR), the condition affects five in every hundred pregnancies.
One of the main problems seems to be that the placenta shuts down, starving the baby of essential nutrients needed to grow. When this happens, the blood vessels become too narrow, reducing the amount of blood that can reach the baby.
University of Manchester
Wellbeing of Women researchers, led by Dr Adam Brook at the University of Manchester, have cast further light on the placental problems associated with FGR.
Dr Brook found that these babies’ blood contains higher levels of a certain kind of protein called cell-free fetal haemoglobin (fHbF).
Haemoglobin usually helps carry oxygen around the body. However, in cases of FGR, too much can cause inflammation of the baby’s blood vessels and can also close them down
Dr Brook said: “We are currently able to detect babies that grow poorly inside the womb by performing growth scans during pregnancy, but unfortunately there is little we can offer in terms of treatment.
“There is no medical therapy to reverse placental dysfunction.
“When blood flow begins to fail between the placenta and the baby completely, the vital supply lines of oxygen and nutrients are cut off.
“This reduction poses a hazard to the survival of the baby and tragically can even result in stillbirth. Developing a reliable therapy that is safe for mother and baby is therefore very much a priority.”
Fetal Growth Restriction
Dr Brook is investigating the use of a drug, hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), to reverse the damage caused by FGR.
So far, research suggest that HCQ may protect the blood vessels and improve placental blood flow by reopening the vessels and allowing more blood to reach the fetal side of the placenta.
This drug could help babies stay in the womb for longer, which could increase their likelihood of growth and survival.
Dr Brook said: “The long-term goal is design a trial to examine whether hydroxychloroquine is useful for treating growth problems during pregnancy.
“Positive results could pave the way for establishing a safe and effective medical treatment of women and babies suffering from pregnancy complication.
“In doing so, treatment might also help to alleviate some of the other severe consequences associated with FGR such as stillbirth, early delivery, and health problems for babies immediately at birth and later in life.”