There is nothing more painful in life than the death of a child, and giving birth to a stillborn baby comes with questions even doctors can't answer: what went wrong? What causes it? Where do we go from here? Although it's often been hard for medical experts to give specific reasons for stillbirth, a new Australian study might have the answers women have been waiting for.
Researchers at Hunter Medical Research Institute in Australia found that many stillbirths — the death of a baby at or after the 20th week of pregnancy — are triggered by a deteriorating placenta.
"As you look around at everybody you know, you'll notice that different people age at different rates," explained researcher Professor Roger Smith in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "And it's almost certainly the same with the placenta. Some placentas age more rapidly than others."
So what does this mean for pregnant women, especially when one out of 160 pregnancies in the US results in a stillbirth? Their placentas should be monitored much more carefully in the weeks leading up to birth.
Smith believes some placentas begin to age weeks before the woman's due date, slowly starving the fetus of nutrients and oxygen it needs to survive. In order to combat that, he and his team have started working on a test that will alert doctors to the signs of deterioration weeks before the mom goes into labor.
Research says that a deteriorating placenta emits an enzyme called aldehyde oxidase, and developing a test that measures how much of it a woman's placenta is excreting can be critical in preventing stillbirths.
"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," he explained.
The researchers are hoping the test will be fully developed in three to five years.