Dr Timm Krüger in EPSRC-funded research to improve understanding of the placenta

The simulation of red blood cells flowing through a capillary network (Image courtesy of Qi 'Charles' Zhou)
The simulation of red blood cells flowing through a capillary network (Image courtesy of Qi 'Charles' Zhou)
Pre-term and stillbirths affect up to 10% of all deliveries, including in developed countries such as the UK. Among these complications, pre-eclampsia, or the compromised supply of blood between mother and foetus through the placenta, costs the NHS and public sector services over £1.2 billion each year in neonatal and infant care in the UK alone.

The School’s Dr Timm Krüger, who is a Lecturer in Chemical Engineering, is seeking to improve our understanding of ‘placental insufficiency’ through a new three-year project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). 

“Novel Models for Haemodynamics and Transport in Complex Media: Towards Precision Healthcare for Placental Disorders” brings together interdisciplinary researchers based in the Usher Institute in Edinburgh and the University of Manchester’s Department of Mathematics, and Department of Physics and Astronomy. The collaborative project will investigate the role of placental structure, blood flow and nutrient transport in pre-eclampsia and foetal growth restriction.

Vital role in early life

The human placenta is a vital life-support system for the developing foetus, supplying oxygen and nutrients through the mother’s blood via a complex foetal blood vessel network.

Our understanding of how the structure and function of the placenta interact to carry out this vital role is, however, currently limited. This is in part due to the human placenta’s uniquely complex structure and physiology, which means that animal studies are of limited use in understanding it.

Our lack of understanding of the placenta carries wide-ranging consequences, and means that there are currently only a small number of options for clinical management of pregnancy diseases such as pre-eclampsia and foetal growth restriction. Placental insufficiency can lead not only to stillbirth and premature delivery, but also to a higher risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and neurological disorders in later life.

Understanding the placenta 

The research team which will develop and validate a framework for image-based modelling and simulation of blood flow and nutrient transport in patient-specific placentas. Using existing datasets describing the structure of both healthy and diseased placentas, the project will investigate which anatomical changes in the placenta are associated with compromised nutrient transport.

The research hopes to establish a sound theoretical basis for the development of interventions and artificial solutions for the treatment of pre-eclampsia and foetal growth restriction, delivering long-term translational impacts including:

  • model-based patient-specific treatment with drugs avoiding placental dysfunction in high-risk pregnancies and;
  • design optimisation of an “artificial placenta” for the support of extremely premature babies.

The project aims ultimately to enable precision medicine for obstetrics and neonatal critical care.

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