O'Brien, collaborators use quantitative ultrasound as method to prevent miscarriages

Beckman Institute faculty member William O'Brien has been a pioneer in developing ultrasound imaging techniques for use in clinical applications. Recently, through a collaboration with University of Illinois at Chicago nursing professor Barbara McFarlin, and with UIUC professors Michael Oelze and James Zachary, O'Brien has applied his quantitative ultrasound imaging methods toward development of a new tool for the prevention of miscarriages.

O'Brien is co-author of a recent paper in the Journal of Ultrasound Medicine called Quantitative Ultrasound Assessment of the Rat Cervix that reports on using a new quantitative ultrasound technique to detect cervical ripening. O'Brien, Oelze, and Zachary have applied quantitative ultrasound methods to detect and diagnosis tumors, including a non-cancerous mammary tumor called fibroadenoma. Now O'Brien, McFarlin, and their collaborators have applied that technique to the detection of cervical ripening, which leads to preterm births - a condition the paper reports is the second leading cause of infant mortality in the United States.

"There is no mechanism now to detect the start of when the mother might be naturally miscarrying," O'Brien said. "That's an earlier stage called cervical ripening. It starts at a point in the cervix that a digital exam cannot determine. So by the time it's detected it's too late, the process is already started."

The authors write that clinical interventions to prevent preterm births have focused on modifying the final phase of labor and not the phasic nature of the process, which involves a long period of cervical ripening. Giving doctors an imaging technique that provides real-time information on cervical ripening could be a breakthrough in preventing preterm births.

"It will provide them with a tool to tell them that this woman has started to miscarry - at a stage where something might be able to be done," O'Brien said. "The whole issue is to try and get the baby to term."

O'Brien, leader of the Bioacoustics Research Laboratory at Beckman, said that the preterm birth rate has increased 16 percent between 1990 and 2004 in spite of a 10-year goal by the National Institutes of Health to reduce the rate to 7 percent by 2010.

To read the paper, click here.