According to new findings out of the UK, three-dimensional imaging of the human placenta has been developed to help understand the reasons for fetal growth restriction, a condition which affects thousands of mothers.

Across all species of mammals, vital life-giving nutrients are transported around the body by complex networks of blood vessels. Despite the importance of these networks, there is still relatively little known about the physical factors which determine the transport of solutes such as oxygen to tissues and organs.

Now, new findings published in Science Advances detail three-dimensional imaging research by a group of scientists at The University of Manchester and St. Mary’s hospital. The research has opened up understanding about this vital life-sustaining process by mathematically modelling the human placenta. While more research has focused on the importance of the placenta, its role in conditions such as fetal growth restriction, a condition which affects 35,000 pregnancies annually in the UK alone, remains poorly understood.

Now a specialist team of scientists made up of mathematicians, physicists, physiologists, and clinical consultants, have used 3D imaging to help model some of the complex processes performed by the placenta.

“In our new study we show how the irregular three-dimensional structure of a terminal villus determines its capacity to exchange solutes such as oxygen between mother and fetus,” explains Dr. Igor Chernyavsky, MRC, presidential research fellow and lead. “Combining image analysis and computational fluid dynamics, we can now quantify mathematically the exchange capacity of individual terminal villi.”

“We now anticipate that this advance will aid the development of larger-scale computational models of placental function. We hope that our new understanding of the role of placental geometry in fetal development will help clinicians address diseases where placental structure is compromised,” he adds.