Congratulations to Dr Lisa Story who has been awarded an NIHR Advanced Fellowship. Dr Story has received a Fellowship to investigate whether it is possible to predict which babies will have serious complications as a result of pre-term birth.

One in seventy-six babies has a very premature birth (PTB) (less than 32 weeks of pregnancy). This can result in severe life-long complications including cerebral palsy, learning and behavioural difficulties and breathing problems.

Infection may cause both the early delivery and associated abnormal brain and lung development. Where obvious signs of infection are not evident in the mother, subtle, undetected infection may be present in the unborn baby. Currently there is no clinical test to detect infection of the baby inside the womb.

Dr Story’s research will involve a group of women at a high risk of preterm birth, identified through the QUIPP app which is another NIHR-funded project at Guy’s and St Thomas’. There will also be women with uncomplicated pregnancies involved as a control group. These women will undergo regular Fetal Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to produce clear images of the baby’s brain and lungs as well as the thymus (a structure in the baby’s neck important to the immune system) and placenta. It can also assess blood flow and tissue structure in detail, as well as organ size. After the birth, their placenta will be analysed to see if there was infection present.

Using machine learning, Dr Story will analyse the scans and test results of babies who do and don’t go on to have complications associated with preterm birth. Through this she hopes to understand how best to identify babies who will be more likely to have problems after birth, and help to direct existing treatments to families who need it the most.

The research builds on pilot data that Dr Story was able to collect thanks to a King’s Open Prize Fellowship and NIHR Clinical Lectureship. Her data suggests that areas of the brain and lungs are smaller in babies that subsequently deliver very preterm, suggesting factors responsible for preterm birth may already be affecting how the baby develops in the womb. She has also worked closely with the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Preterm Birth PPI group, with women in the group helping to develop the research project.

Dr Story said: “I’m so thrilled to have received an advanced Fellowship from NIHR. I’ve been working on smaller projects on this topic for a while, and this has given me the data I needed to start a wider project. The Fellowship will provide me with the resources to run a larger scale study, with MRIs and other costly technology. It also gives me the funding and the time to expand my research skills and knowledge.

“I’m particularly grateful to the women and families who have already taken part in pilot studies, and who have given their time and shared their outlook in helping to develop this study.”