Skip to main content

29 September 2015

King's College London wins $3 million award to use imaging to monitor placenta health

King’s wins research award from the National Institutes of Health, America’s national medical research agency.

King’s wins research award from the National Institutes of Health, America’s national medical research agency.
King’s wins research award from the National Institutes of Health, America’s national medical research agency.

Professor Mary Rutherford, Chair in Perinatal Imaging, and Professor Jo Hajnal, Chair in Imaging Physics at King’s College London, have won a research award from the National Institutes of Health, America’s national medical research agency. It forms part of the Human Placenta Project, an initiative to revolutionize understanding of the placenta.

The Project will fund technology development and testing to assess placental function throughout pregnancy, with the ultimate goal of improving pregnancy outcomes and lifelong health.

Professor Rutherford, from the Division of Imaging Sciences & Biomedical Engineering at KCL aims to use the award to image pregnant women, using a technique called Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), to see if the placenta is functioning correctly. The award of $3 million over 3 years will enable her to work with collaborators from both UCL, Nottingham and New York to use advanced MRI techniques to assess both the micro structure and the function of the placenta.

We will use our MR expertise and apply it to this new area by using advanced imaging tools to get a more detailed picture of placental development and function and its influence on both the fetus and the mother. Being able to monitor the placenta has the potential to help with earlier diagnosis of conditions such as preeclampsia that affect up to 6% of pregnancies.

Professor Rutherford, Chair in Perinatal Imaging, King's College London

The placenta is a critical organ that transfers blood, oxygen, and nutrients from mother to fetus and clears harmful waste like carbon dioxide. It also produces hormones to help sustain the pregnancy and regulate the immune system so that mother and fetus can coexist. More recently placental function has been shown to effect the lifelong health of the fetus.

Many complications of pregnancy—such as preeclampsia, preterm birth, and even stillbirth—can occur because of problems with the placenta. If researchers can develop tools to monitor placental development and function from the earliest stages of pregnancy, physicians may one day be able to identify problems sooner and intervene more quickly.

Professor Rutherford and her team will be recruiting pregnant women to have an MRI scan and will be interested in studying  women who are healthy as well as those who are more likely to be affected by conditions such as pre-eclampsia eg those who have high blood pressure or diabetes. Having a body mass index (BMI) of over 35 can also increase the chance of developing pre-eclampsia so she will be recruiting from that group too.

“People usually take the placenta for granted. But when it doesn’t work the way it should, it can put the entire pregnancy at risk—along with the health of mother and fetus,” said Catherine Spong, M.D., deputy director of NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which is leading the initiative.

NIH has funded 19 projects, totaling approximately $46 million in this fiscal year. The awards will support development of safe, noninvasive methods to monitor the placenta in real time, throughout all stages of pregnancy. The funds also will support research on environmental factors that may affect placental function.

King’s College London was the only awardee from outside North America.


About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit