Scientists develop mobile foetal surveillance system

Scientists from Ulster University, Queens University Belfast (QUB) and the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital in Belfast are developing a high-tech mobile foetal surveillance system, which could help prevent stillbirth by alerting doctors when a baby’s life is at risk.

A stillbirth is when a baby dies in the womb or during delivery after 24 weeks of pregnancy – approximately 4,000 babies are stillborn each year in the UK. Many bereaved mothers say that, in the days leading up to the stillbirth, the pattern of their baby’s movements seemed to decrease and the baby did not move around or kick as much as usual.

It is believed that the careful monitoring of a baby’s movements in the womb could provide an early warning if a baby is at risk of stillbirth. This, in turn, would alert doctors, enabling them to intervene and possibly save the baby’s life.

The research team is led by Dr Stephen Ong – a consultant at the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital – and includes Dr Joan Condell from Ulster University’s Computer Science Research Institute and Dr Fatih Kurugollu from the Electronics, Communications and Information Technology Faculty at QUB. Both Condell and Kurugollu have previously carried out extensive research into security surveillance systems and automated video surveillance.

Ultrasound scans are already widely used to monitor a baby’s movements in the mother’s womb. However, Condell said that the researchers are developing computer programs to analyse the moving images obtained from ultrasound scans of healthy women, who are five to six months pregnant, to determine whether it is possible to assess the wellbeing of the baby from them.

Similar software is already in widespread use for other purposes, such as analysing CCTV footage from security surveillance systems and during computer-assisted surgery.

Condell believes the research, which is funded by Action Medical Research, is both relevant and practical. ’Around one in 200 babies born in the UK each year is stillborn. Pregnant women who have already experienced a stillbirth, and women who are thought to be at high risk, stand to benefit most from this new surveillance system,’ she said.

While the work is in still at an early stage, the researchers hope to ultimately develop a mobile device that pregnant women could use while they are up and about. Data from the device could be relayed wirelessly to a computer and monitored by medical staff.