The placenta, which is an organ that gives nutrients and oxygen during pregnancy, is normally delivered shortly after the baby is born. A rapid evaluation of the placenta may provide valuable information about both the mother and baby’s health, but a pathological exam requires a specialist pathologist. Only 20% of American births include a placenta evaluation. The evaluation of the placenta can be difficult or impossible in countries with fewer pathologists per head.
“By understanding placentas, we can understand a lot about health — both on the mom’s side and the baby’s side,” said Alison Gernand, associate professor of nutritional sciences and one of the principal investigators on the project. “But placentas are hard to assess, and this work currently requires a pathologist. We are not trying to replace pathologists, but we want to create something easy to use that can provide good information about any placenta, anywhere.”
Researchers explored many funding options to continue their work. This grant will allow them to make further progress. The final software would allow the evaluation of placentas to be performed in a variety of birth situations around the world.
The software allows you to evaluate the placenta by simply blotting excess blood with a towel, and then taking a digital photo of the placenta. The software will evaluate the basic characteristics of the placenta — including size, color, shape, and circumference — and check for signs of infection to identify potential pathologies. This information can be used by health care professionals to assess the mother and newborn’s health.
“When it is available, information from placental pathology is already used to help understand and explain critical events in pregnancy,” said Kelly Gallagher, assistant research professor of nursing and investigator on this project. “This information is also used to counsel families for future pregnancies and in the clinical care of medically vulnerable newborns. Rapid access to placental pathology information has the potential to dramatically improve care.”
This software creation requires expertise in multiple areas. The team includes researchers from Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development, College of Information Sciences and Technology and Ross and Carol Nese College of Nursing.
Each member of the project’s leadership team contributes to the research in a separate way. Gernand studies placenta and the outcomes of pregnancy in low-resource environments. James Wang is a distinguished professor in information sciences and technology. He was one of the principal investigators. His research focuses on how to interpret large and complex visual data. Jeffery Goldstein, assistant professor of pathology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and one of the principal investigators on this project, studies bioimaging and informatics to improve diagnosis and treatment of problems in maternal-child health. Gallagher is a nurse-midwife who will be responsible for the clinical aspects of data collection as well as providing expertise on maternal and infant outcomes.
The prototype of artificial intelligence software that will evaluate the placentas has been developed by the researchers. In the United States, patents were granted to the algorithm that powers their software. The researchers hope to create a mobile app that performs the same evaluations once the software is finished. This would allow anyone to evaluate placentas at birth in virtually any environment by making the software mobile-friendly.