Monitoring uterine contractions during labor is critical for safeguarding maternal health and preventing preterm births, the world’s leading cause of death in children under age 5. Toward that end, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis plan to develop a portable, inexpensive and noninvasive 3D imaging system designed to monitor labor progression.

The researchers have received more than $1.1 million in new grant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help make uterine mapping technology available globally in low-income clinics that lack basic resources in their labor and delivery rooms.

“Women and children in poor settings experience more adverse health complications related to birth,” said Yong Wang, principal investigator and an associate professor of obstetrics & gynecology in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology‘s Division of Clinical Research. “Understanding patterns in uterine contractions can help detect labor dysfunction and allow for timely clinical intervention.”

Each year, about 15 million babies are born before 37 weeks’ gestation — the point at which a pregnancy is considered full-term — and the number of premature births is increasing, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). One million children die annually from complications of preterm birth, yet three-quarters of such deaths are believed preventable with access to basic health care and updated technologies.

Babies who survive often endure a lifetime of poor health, including learning and developmental disabilities, vision and hearing impairments, and problems with brain and lung function.

The WHO also estimates that 810 women die each day from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Most of these deaths occur in poor countries and likely could be prevented with proper care and resources.

“Infant and maternal health outcomes are closely connected,” said Wang, also an associate professor of radiology and of electrical & systems engineering in the Preston M. Green Department of Electrical & Systems Engineering at the McKelvey School of Engineering. “Early intervention can save the lives of mothers and their babies from complications related to labor and delivery.”

The 14-month grant was awarded after a larger and costlier version of the researchers’ uterine contraction imaging system was featured on the cover of Science Translational Medicine in 2019. The foundation aims to help develop and test novel technologies that can be used in birthing centers in underdeveloped regions.

To make the technology inexpensive and portable, the researchers plan to use ultrasound instead of MRI, and substitute wire electrodes with printed electrodes, among other modifications. Printed electrodes are disposable, inexpensive electrical conductors that, for this purpose, measure uterine contractions.

The technology, called Electromyometrium Imaging, is a result of a collaboration between researchers in the university’s Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology and the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 1,500 faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is a leader in medical research, teaching and patient care, ranking among the top 10 medical schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis promotes independent inquiry and education with an emphasis on scientific excellence, innovation and collaboration without boundaries. McKelvey Engineering has top-ranked research and graduate programs across departments, particularly in biomedical engineering, environmental engineering and computing, and has one of the most selective undergraduate programs in the country. With 165 full-time faculty, 1,420 undergraduate students, 1,614 graduate students and 21,000 living alumni, we are working to solve some of society’s greatest challenges; to prepare students to become leaders and innovate throughout their careers; and to be a catalyst of economic development for the St. Louis region and beyond.

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