Scientists ID Chemicals in the Blood That May Predict Stillbirth
A new study from the University of Alberta has identified a unique chemical signature in the blood of mothers of stillborn babies. The researchers say these signals, or biomarkers, could help doctors in preventing stillbirth in the future.
“When we started analyzing the blood of women who experienced stillbirth and compared them to healthy women, we noticed there’s a chemical difference,” says David Wishart, professor in the department of biological sciences at the University and lead author of the study published in The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine. “This suggested that we could predict and potentially prevent stillbirths.”
First trimester blood samples of mothers of stillborn babies contained a unique chemical signature, containing four metabolites. Metabolites are natural substances produced by the body, involved in the healthy functioning of myriad processes, especially processes relating to growth, development and reproduction. These four metabolites, when present in the mother’s blood during her first trimester, were found to be predictive of stillbirth overall, as well as premature stillbirth. When this first-trimester blood signature was compared with known risk factors for stillbirth, the predictive accuracy increased.
In the course of their study, the researchers also identified a fifth chemical marker – verruculotoxin — which may play a role in stillbirth, though they say more study is needed to define the link.
“Verrucotoxin is likely produced by microbes and fungi,” explains Wishart. “This is intriguing because there’s anecdotal information about people, living in certain areas where there’s high mold instances, of having high instances of stillbirth.”
India has one of the world’s highest rates of stillbirth — 23 out of every 1,000 babies are stillborn, according to data from 2015; globally, the stillbirth rate is 18.4 in 1,000. Women who do experience stillbirth are often blamed for the loss, compounding their unacknowledged grief.
To date, most research into stillbirth has focused on genetic links, yielding limited insight. The team says their findings regarding blood metabolites will inform the development of new tools to aid in preventing stillbirth more effectively and treat conditions that affect the health of women and their unborn children.
“This research is the tip of a bigger iceberg,” Wishart says. “By looking at the chemicals in the mother’s blood we can actually identify the risk for not just stillbirth, but a whole range of other conditions both for the mother and the fetus.”