Alberta scientists help identify stillbirth-predicting blood chemicals

A team of scientists, including researchers from the University of Alberta, have identified five chemicals in pregnant women’s blood that could help doctors predict and prevent stillbirths.

University of Alberta biology professor David Wishart says it’s the kind of discovery that keeps him coming back to his research. 

Wishart was on the team that identified the five chemicals, called biomarkers. The team set out in 2016 to determine whether the presence of certain blood chemicals correlates with higher rates of stillbirths.

“No one had expected we would see something and no one had explored that,” Wishart said.

“It’s an exciting one. Science is sort of this thing where it’s dull for weeks and then there’s this spike of excitement and then it’s more boredom for several weeks and then another spike … that’s what you get addicted to, it’s what keeps you in science.”

Biology professor David Wishart is one of the leading researchers behind the discovery of five blood chemicals linked to stillbirths. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

The spike of excitement, in this case, could lead to a drop in stillbirths across the country, Wishart said.

The findings will help doctors predict whether a woman is at risk of a stillbirth, by doing a blood test during her first trimester of pregnancy. If any of the five newly-identified biomarkers are present in her blood there are ways to intervene before the fetus is harmed, Wishart said.

“If you’re seeing this at the first trimester, the baby’s still alive, the baby’s still doing well. It may then be possible to introduce some prophylactic treatments or other things that will improve the situation,” Wishart said.

“Previously a lot of it was thinking it’s all in the genes, so you’re born with this so you can’t do anything about it. What this is telling us is we can do something about it, it’s fixable and if we can catch it early we can certainly, hopefully, reduce stillbirths.”

The team of scientists, which included members from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, released its findings in a 2018 report. Their research is founded in metabolomics, the study of molecules in the body. 

Wishart is a pioneer in the field, embarking on his metabolomics career in the early 1990s before the branch of science even had a name.

His work has helped identify thousands of chemicals found in or made by the body, which can be used to diagnose certain diseases.

“It’s been a fun ride,” Wishart said. “There are new things always happening … we’re enjoying it because it’s a chance to relate it to the public.”

The study of pregnant women’s blood is the most recent advancement in a largely untapped area of research, he added. 

“Some of these things are really making it into the public domain and they’re making a difference for people’s lives,” he said.

“Maybe there’s something out there in the environment that’s been completely missed that could really change the game.”

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