Annual fundraising campaign supports research to end stillbirth

All donations to this year’s University of Melbourne annual fundraising campaign will support research that aims to end preventable stillbirth.

Stillbirth is a global human tragedy, with 2.6 million babies lost to stillbirth around the world each year.

University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis said every day in Australia, six families lose their baby to stillbirth.

“The research and testing required in preventing stillbirth is extremely expensive and philanthropic investment will allow the University to continue this important work,” Professor Davis said.

One of the biggest contributors to stillbirth is foetal growth restriction, which is when the fetus fails to receive enough placental nutrition or oxygen within the womb.

University of Melbourne Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Stephen Tong said many of these babies are lost late in pregnancy.

“If they had been known to be at risk, they could have been safely delivered,” Professor Tong said.

The annual fundraising appeal is part of the University of Melbourne’s Believe philanthropic campaign, which tackles major challenges facing the world.

It has helped fund ground-breaking research in a diverse range of areas, including art history, childhood mental health, criminology, developmental medicine and human rights law.

Professor Tong is part of a team of University of Melbourne researchers, trying to develop a blood test that identifies unborn babies that are at higher risk of stillbirth.

“If we succeed, then clinicians can use a high-risk test result to selectively offer much closer ultrasound surveillance of babies at risk, and/or to immediately deliver them before a stillbirth happens,” Professor Tong said.

“The test involves sophisticated technologies which identify molecules that are being leaked from the stressed placenta and released into the mum's blood at abnormal levels.

“Specifically, we are hunting for molecular signatures that are present in the mum's blood when there is serious placental injury or dysfunction, that can lead to stillbirth.”

The team has already collected blood from 2000 women at the Mercy Hospital for Women in a project funded by the NHMRC.

“Mining these precious samples, we have identified a number of very promising leads,” Professor Tong said.

“We now need to further develop the mathematical algorithms to refine this test. Once that is done, we need to then do large validation studies (possibly on a new cohort collection) to prove that the test works.”