Researchers at the university suggested their findings could lead to new genetic tests that could be offered by medical laboratories
New research conducted at the University of Utah suggests that clinical laboratories may someday be able to deploy genetic tests to indicate whether a couple has a higher-than-average risk of stillbirth.
This is yet another example of how researchers are cracking DNA’s code to understand how certain gene variants may affect the healthcare of offspring. The knowledge produced by this research, as confirmed by additional studies, may lead to genetic markers that medical laboratories can use to diagnose the risk of stillbirth using the parent’s DNA.
The researchers published their study in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (BJOG), titled “Familial Aggregation of Stillbirth: A Pedigree Analysis of a Matched Case–Control Study.”
“Stillbirth is one of those problems that is so tragic and life-changing,” said study co-author Jessica Page, MD (above). “It is especially frustrating when you don’t have a good answer for why it happens. This knowledge may give us the opportunity to change how we risk stratify people and reduce their risk through prevention.” Should this research be validated, clinical laboratories may soon have new genetics tests to help doctors identify risk for stillbirth. (Photo copyright: Intermountain Healthcare.)
Can Stillbirth be Prevented?
Jessica Page, MD, an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Utah School of Medical and co-author of the 2022 study, was lead author of a 2018 study that estimated nearly one-fourth of stillbirths are preventable.
“Stillbirth rate reduction has been slow in the US and we think many stillbirths may be potentially preventable,” she said in a university press release. “This is motivating us to look for those genetic factors so we can achieve more dramatic rate reduction.”
According to the press release, the University of Utah researchers found that stillbirth “can be inherited and tends to be passed down through male members of the family. That risk preferentially comes from the mother’s or father’s male relatives—their brothers, fathers, grandfathers, uncles, or male cousins. But the odds of a couple losing a baby to stillbirth are even greater when the condition comes from the father’s side of the family.”
The researchers made this discovery by analyzing data from the Utah Population Database (UPDB), which contains information on eight million people who were born in the state or have other connections there. The database is maintained by the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. It includes genealogical information and health records that allowed the researchers to trace incidence of stillbirths across multiple generations of families.
The researchers examined 9,404 stillbirth cases between 1978 and 2019, along with 18,808 live births that served as controls. They identified 390 multi-generational families with high numbers of stillbirths. Within that group, they looked at incidence of stillbirth among first-, second-, and third-degree relatives of stillborn babies. They then compared those numbers with data from unaffected families.
“We were able to evaluate multigenerational trends in fetal death as well as maternal and paternal lineages to increase our ability to detect a familial aggregation of stillbirth,” said genetic epidemiologist Tsegaselassie Workalemahu, PhD, lead author of the study. “Not many studies have examined inherited genetic risk for stillbirth because of a lack of data. The Utah Population Database allows for a more rigorous evaluation than has been possible in the past.”
Workalemahu described the research as “an important step toward identifying specific genes that increase the risk of stillbirth, which could one day lead to better diagnosis and prevention,” according to the university press release.
One caveat, the press release notes, is that Utah’s population is disproportionately of northern European descent. “Future studies will need to determine whether the trends hold true among people of different races and ethnicities,” it stated.
Call for More Testing
The University of Utah study is part of a larger effort to gain a greater understanding of the causes of stillbirths.
“Researchers and national obstetric groups, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, have called on doctors and hospitals to offer a stillbirth evaluation, a systematic assessment that includes placental exams, genetic testing, and autopsies,” states a recent story from ProPublica.
The story notes that “more than 20,000 pregnancies in the US end in stillbirth,” and in one in three of those cases, the cause is not determined.
Drucilla Roberts, MD, an obstetric and perinatal pathologist at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), told ProPublica that at a minimum, “the placenta should definitely be evaluated in every stillbirth.” But citing CDC data, the story notes that this is done in only 65% of stillbirths, and autopsies are performed in less than 20%.
“Experts blame the low rates on several factors,” the story states. “Because an autopsy often is performed in the days following a stillbirth, doctors and nurses have to ask families soon after they receive news of the death if they would like one. Many families can’t process the loss, let alone imagine their baby’s body being cut open. What’s more, many doctors aren’t trained in the advantages of an autopsy, or in communicating with parents about the exam.”
One consequence, ProPublica notes, is that clinicians are ill-equipped to advise patients on how to reduce risk in future pregnancies. The story describes the case of Karen Gibbins, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist and an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland.
An Opportunity for Pathologists
Gibbins’ son was stillborn in 2018. She asked for an autopsy and learned that her son “had a rare disease caused by her antibodies attacking the cells in his liver,” the story states. When she became pregnant again, her doctor prescribed antibody infusions and she later gave birth to a healthy son. “If we had not had that autopsy, my third child would have died as well,” she told ProPublica.
This parent’s comment about the value of the autopsy done after her son’s stillbirth identifies an opportunity for the pathology profession. For several decades, health plans have become ever more reluctant to pay for autopsies. Yet, pathologists know the value that autopsies can provide.
The immediate value comes from revealing useful insights about all the health conditions of the deceased. The long-term value comes from the ability to gather the findings across a large number of autopsies that can contribute to new knowledge about health conditions that physicians use to improve the diagnoses of different health conditions.
Thus, with the publication of this peer-reviewed study about the connection between genetic variations and stillbirth, there is the opportunity for some of the nation’s pathology societies to advocate for funding a pilot program to fund more autopsies of stillborn babies, specifically to add more knowledge about the role of gene mutations as a causative factor in stillbirths.