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Challenge Seeks Tech, Models to Reduce Stillbirths

Pregnant woman

(Freestocks.org, Unsplash)

1 June 2022. A research competition is seeking better technologies to measure gestational development and predict outcomes to reduce the number of stillbirths by half. The challenge, with a prize purse of $50 million and initial deadline of 30 June, is conducted by Wellcome Leap, an organization in Los Angeles that promotes and funds rapid design and delivery of new medical technologies.

Wellcome Leap cites data published in 2020 by Unicef indicating some two million babies are stillborn each year, or one stillbirth every 16 seconds. The organization says about 12,000 stillbirths occur in the U.S. each year, with rates remaining static for a decade. The effects, notes the Unicef report, can be traumatic and long-lasting on families, even in high-income regions of the world. In addition, more than 40 percent of stillbirths occur during labor, which could be avoided by better monitoring and access to emergency care during delivery.

A large part of the problem, says Wellcome Leap, is the difficulty in identifying pregnancy complications early on. Monitoring gestational development, says the organization, requires tracking the ability of the placenta to transfer oxygen and nutrients through the blood from mother to baby. This transfer function is complex and affected by a number of factors, including size and structure of the placenta, as well as integrity of blood flow to the baby through the umbilical cord. The placenta is also the source of hormones and other proteins that support fetal growth, and block pathogens and substances that could harm the baby.

New tools for physicians and point-of-care clinicians

The challenge competition seeks to fill a technology gap that Wellcome Leap says contributes the continuing problem of stillbirths. Anywhere from one-quarter to one-half of stillbirths, says the organization, are unexplained, meaning the causes are unidentified, with concrete explanations of timing, sequence, or mechanisms rarely provided. Current technologies, such as ultrasound and Doppler measurements of blood flow are conducted intermittently, says the organization, and are not predictive of stillbirth risks.

The competition asks teams of researchers from universities, research institutes, and for-profit companies to propose better measurements of gestational development and predictive models to identify stillbirth risks earlier in pregnancies. Wellcome Leap says new mobile sensing, imaging, genomics, and data analytics technologies offer opportunities for developing better pregnancy monitoring processes and statistical models or algorithms for highlighting earlier risks of stillbirth. The program’s goal is to quickly develop those technologies to put new tools in the hands of physicians and point-of-care clinicians to provide more frequent and routine gestational monitoring, with analytics to process the data and predict outcomes, and reduce stillbirth rates by half.

The challenge asks for proposals to develop four new types of technology, on a rapid timeline: (1) new tests and biomarkers, (2) novel data collection methods, (3) predictive models of gestational development, and (4) screening, prevention, and intervention methods. Participant teams are asked to submit abstracts by 30 June 2022, addressing one or more of those four technology areas. Wellcome Leap says it will review proposals and provide feedback, including invitations for full proposals, by 15 July. Those invited to take part in the rest of the competition should submit full proposals by 15 Aug., with final decisions on funding made by 14 Sept. The organization says projects will be funded for three years, with an option for one more year.

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