Detailed pregnancy scan could help spot abnormalities

A new high quality scan has been developed with the ability to identify foetal abnormalities a regular ultrasound might not pick up

An international team of researchers have created a scan which captures the clearest images to date of a foetus. Developed by researchers and clinicians at iFind – a project granted an Innovative Engineering for Health Award of £10 million funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – it’s hoped the technology will allow for screening of foetal abnormalities on a regular basis.

According to Dr David Lloyd, clinical fellow working on the iFind project, only half of all congenital abnormalities are picked up by 20-week ultrasounds scans. The project hopes to change this with the development of new ‘computer-guided ultrasound technologies’, and by using state-of-the-art techniques in ultrasounds, MRI, robotics and computing, meaning more complications could be picked up earlier and even treated before baby is born. The researchers plan to develop the technology to include four probes that automatically move around the mother’s tummy to capture the best image.

Dr Lloyd said; “Taking pictures of a 20 week fetus while they’re still in the womb really isn’t that easy. For one thing, they’re very small. The fetal heart, for example, with all of its tiny chambers and valves, is only about 15mm long: less than the size of a penny. Ultrasound technology – used in all routine antenatal scans in the UK – is actually fairly good at visualising these tiny structures. It uses very high frequency sound waves which are reflected back (“echo”) from the structures inside the body to produce an image. In foetal ultrasound, the images produced can be excellent; but unfortunately that’s not true for every patient. Importantly, it is also one of the few imaging techniques that is safe to use in pregnancy.”

In a conventional ultrasound, rapid movement from baby would prevent the doctor from taking a clear picture; whereas the new scanner uses computer algorithms to automatically correct small foetal movements, therefore producing a much sharper image. The team behind the new scan technology are from Kings College London, St Thomas’ Hospital, Imperial College London, University of Firenze, the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and Philips Healthcare.

The team recorded a short video of the scan, taken during a London trial on an anonymous mum-to-be. The clip was given to parenting site; take a look…