Annual Visit to the Fetal Research Center, Barcelona

Barca 1We listen to families. Then we fund research at Universities across the UK that can give them the answers they need. Together, we’re helping families discover a better life.

On 8th November 2016 a team from Cerebra visited Hospital Sant Joan de Déu in Barcelona where we help fund pioneering research.

Beverley Hitchcock from Cerebra’s Research and Information Department told us all about the visit:

“On arriving at St Joan de Déu we were taken on a tour of the facility – the largest establishment in Spain for specialist programmes. The hospital deals with maternity and paediatrics. Per annum there are 4,000 deliveries.

We were shown where expectant mothers are seen and assessed, along with an actual delivery suite and the individual rooms that mothers and their babies stay after delivery. Mothers, on average, only stay in the hospital for up to 12 hours after delivery. We were shown the paediatrics scanning facility where each room is named after a planet with the solar system painted in the room. The whole concept of the hospital is that it is interactive for children and makes them feel at ease.

Barca 2We were then shown the neo-natal department which is divided into two areas:

  • For those born full time but have complications and will need surgery
  • For those born prematurely.

Our final stop on the tour was at the Fetal Medicine Research Center. There are 70 members of the research team with 20 PhD students. Within the last ten years, with the amount of academic papers written this research is now second in the world.

We were then given a talk by five members of the Research Group.

Eduard Gratacós spoke first on the consequences of growth restriction on foetal life. He stressed the importance of combining expertise and working as a multi-disciplinary team as there is a very particular patient involved. The research programme looks at:

  • Improving detection by looking at what can cause growth restriction through malnutrition; toxics; placental disease; hormonal disturbances and stress.
  • Using new imaging biomarkers
  • By instigating new therapies

Eduard discussed the impact on society of the research. He mentioned the Inatal website which provides information for doctors and families. This includes specialised forums, pregnancy information along with news and views. There are 9.6 million visits a year to this website, with 6 million visits from the USA. Eduard indicated that he plans to have more of a collaboration with Nigel Simpson in Leeds.

Fatima Crispi then took us through the detection part of the research programme. Currently the detection rate is at 65%, which needs to improve. So the researchers have been looking at different biomarkers (those listed above). The two year project is looking at 600 small babies and what might have occurred during their foetal life. Questionnaires are completed relating to nutrition and stress. The preliminary results show that expectant mother’s protein levels are low and that there is less ferritin in the blood. Regarding stress there would appear to be a higher level of stress perception than normal amongst mothers. There is also a higher level of cortisol in the foetal urine.

Elisenda Eixarch spoke about the new image biomarkers. This includes an MRI and ultrasound both prenatally and neonatally.  These scans look at the connections, the structure and the function of the brain. A specific structure will also be looked at, along with tissue profiling. Growth restriction results in less mature and less organised brain networks. Low oxygen delivery to the brain has a profound effect on the brain as well. The programme is looking at increasing the sample size.

Francesca Crovetto talked about the new therapies around nutrition and stress. They will be starting a new study on this next year which will be partially funded by Cerebra. The integrated study is currently in the design phase but they are looking to recruit 1,200 patients in their second trimester. In relation to nutrition this will involve a Mediterranean diet. Vegetarians would have to agree to eat fish, eggs, nuts and use olive oil. To reduce the cortisol levels and to lower stress levels a Mindfulness programme will be used. This will involve a 6-8 week course with an instructor, then a follow-up and practice at home. Imogen posed the question of how they would restrict the control group from going off and changing their own diet or doing their own Mindfulness course. Francesca explained that this could be an issue but the control group would be seen more frequently and have some dietary intervention.

Georgina Feixas is a neonatal ICU nurse of 15 years and is part of the research group which she does in Barca 3her own time. She nurtures strong links with the parents and there is a 24 hour support helpline. For the MRI scan she explained that the baby will listen to a recording 15 weeks before the scan. There is also a Brazelton test and a number of further tests up to two years old. Georgina said that every family that she approached to join in the research programme always agree to participate.

You can find out more about the research that takes place at the University of Barcelona here.