Written by Helena Pozniak
For an engineer, Dr Michelle Oyen has spent a lot of time with placentas recently. “It’s a really weird organ, half baby, half mother. It must begin functioning at the same time as it develops. There’s nothing else like it in the body,” she says.
Oyen is committed to discovering why pregnancies go wrong. And fascinated by applying engineering principles to medical research in her post as reader in bioengineering at the University of Cambridge. “You can’t experiment on pregnant women – it’s totally unethical and impossible.” Instead, her team take high-resolution images of donated placentas to understand the geometry of blood vessels. They then use these to build 3D online models to understand how blood flows around the placenta. “We are trying to understand how cells involved in building a placenta know how to invade the right amount into a uterus,” she says. “They have to get it just right, and it’s a poorly understood process.”
Currently, one in five pregnancies are believed to end in miscarriage, and 85% of these happen in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Parents often have no idea why – and it can be heartbreaking for the 200,000 people (women plus partners) affected every year.
“I believe some of the problems in healthcare are some of the biggest problems in modern society,” says Oyen. “As engineers we have different tools to biologists and doctors. The more people you have approaching a problem from a different perspective, the more likely you are to understand it.”
Around the country, research collaborations are forming between universities. “There seems to be an explosion of bioengineers interested in pregnancy,” says Oyen. “But compared with other conditions it’s been understudied – from a bioengineering perspective at least.” In 2013 to 2014, miscarriage research charity Tommy’s says that the most up-to-date figures it was able to obtain indicate that just 4% of the government’s health research budget was spent on reproductive health and childbirth, with only a fraction of this going towards miscarriage research.
At the largest miscarriage research centre in Europe, hosted by the University of Birmingham, scientists and medics from Birmingham, the University of Warwick and Imperial College London are collaborating to research the causes of miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. Tommy’s National Centre for Miscarriage, funded by the charity, investigates potential genetic causes, including a possible link to damaged DNA in sperm, and other research avenues, such as the role of bacteria. Using clinical data from around the country, scientists hope to develop computer modelling that can predict the risk of miscarriage. “We are working to establish the role of the immune system as a prognostic factor in women with recurrent miscarriage, and incorporating these factors to predict pregnancy outcomes more accurately,” says Prof Arri Coomarasamy, director of the centre.
Currently the centre is developing clinical trial apprenticeships, based at Birmingham, for researchers and clinicians to build up relevant skills. To work in the field, you don’t necessarily need a bioengineering qualification – Coomarasamy doesn’t, although she does have three other degrees. “All kinds of engineering backgrounds – mechanical, chemical, materials – are perfectly well-suited to the work we do,” she says. “The thing about engineering is the tools we bring to the table – such as computational modelling – can be applied to any problem.”
Original article here.