Doctors discover a cause of stillbirth – and a blood test may soon prevent it

Pregnant mum and daughter hugging

Content warning: This post discusses stillbirth. An Australian research team have made an important game-changing breakthrough, discovering an ageing placenta may be responsible for many stillbirths.

Placenta problems

SANDS tells us that over 2000 Australian babies are stillborn each year – or around 6 babies every day. It’s a staggering statistic, especially when you consider the silence and stigma that surrounds the discussion of this terrible experience. You would never know that so many families are affected by this kind of tragedy.

Thankfully, experts are determined to make a difference, and are working to reduce this awful toll. 

Professor Smith AM and his team at Hunter Medical Research Instituteare one such team of experts. They’ve recently discovered that a deteriorating placenta triggers many stillbirths and say this will soon help predict a woman’s risk of losing a baby. The longevity and robustness of a placenta is really the luck of the draw, apparently varying from woman to woman.

“Some placentas age more rapidly than others,” Professor Smith told the ABC, explaining that some placentas are past their peak many weeks before a baby’s due date, meaning the baby is not getting the oxygen or nutrients it needs.

“If the placenta is not working, the levels of oxygen fall in the baby, and if they get low enough, the baby will die,” Professor Smith said.

Enzyme spotting

While this is obviously a terrible outcome, Professor Smith and his team’s new findings are the first steps to preventing this kind of tragic loss.

They’ve found that an enzyme called aldehyde oxidase is released when a placenta starts to deteriorate and are developing a pregnancy blood test which will pick up this enzyme. The appropriate life-saving intervention or treatment can then be planned.

“It’s possible that we’ll be able to develop diagnostic tests to pick up in the mother’s blood the signs of ageing 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 said.

They hope a diagnostic test will be available to women in three to five years.

“It’s not their fault”

This new research is further confirmation that the loss of a baby during pregnancy is not due to anything an expectant mother has done.

“It’s really important for mums of stillborn babies to understand that it’s not their fault. This is something that’s happened to the placenta, they had very little or no control over it,” Professor Smith explained.

“There was nothing they could do to prevent it.” 


If you’re struggling with the loss of a baby, please don’t go it alone. SANDS counsellors are there to support you and provide helpful advice about living with loss.

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