MADISON, Wis. — University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers are studying placentas from births at a local hospital to identify structural changes in fetal membranes that could help determine when a premature birth is likely to occur.
The Morgridge Institute for Research this month began studying four placentas from UnityPoint Health-Meriter, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. The study could examine up to 70 placentas, which are typically discarded.
University scientists also hope to create fiber optic cameras and enhance ultrasound technology to help doctors see changes in fetal members or the cervix that could indicate an early delivery.
"We want to learn the different ways things can go wrong," said Kayvan Samimi, a postdoctoral researcher who is leading the project. "The long-term goal is ... to make a catheter, a small probe that a clinician could use to study the integrity of the membranes, the health of the pregnancy."
Researchers hope the light will be able to help identify small changes in the membranes that ultrasounds can't detect.
"You can see smaller things with light than you can with sound," said Melissa Skala, a mechanical engineering investigator at Morgridge.
Babies born early may not feed well, can be developmentally delayed and may have problems breathing, seeing and hearing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pregnant women who are black, have a low socioeconomic status or are younger or older than typical maternal age are at increased risk for preterm birth, the CDC said.
But Dr. Helen Feltovich, an obstetrician who is on the UW-Madison faculty, said it's nearly impossible to tell if or when a woman may deliver early.
Feltovich, who specializes in high-risk births, recalled a story where a woman seemed fine, only to have her fetal membranes rupture suddenly, causing her to lose her twins.
"That's why we're doing this work," Feltovich said. "It happens all the time, and it's really sad, and we don't know why."