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Cincinnati Children's Seeks Cure of Increasing Pregnancy Danger

Ann Thompson
Dr. Helen Jones, in charge of fetal and placental research at Cincinnati Children's, looks at part of a human placenta.

A once rare and potentially deadly condition among pregnant women is becoming more common. Researchers at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center are trying to pinpoint a cause and develop a treatment.

Placenta accreta is a life-threatening condition where the placenta grows too deeply into the uterine wall. If it attaches to other organs, such as the bladder, and doctors don't know it ahead of time, the patient can bleed to death when the placenta is removed after birth.

Doctors say one in 350 women is at risk. Thirty years ago it was one in 1,000. In most cases, those at risk have had more than one c-section, but the underlying cause is unclear.

The Consequences Could Be Life-Threatening

Kim Kardashian suffered from it. She got a surrogate to carry her last two children because of the condition.

Mason teacher Lauren England had it with her youngest. Doctors caught it early and she was able to plan for it. "I had never heard of it. When my regular OB came in and she said, 'I just want you to know the baby is fine but we think you might have something called placenta accreta' - I had no idea what she was talking about."

England, who had one previous caesarean-section, began bleeding at 24 weeks and went straight to Good Samaritan Hospital and never left until after her baby was born. Her placenta had grown into part of her bladder. Part of it had to be removed; she lost half her blood; and needed to have a hysterectomy.

Those Who Have It Might Be Missing A Gene

In a Children's Hospital lab, Helen Jones is trying to find the cause of placenta accreta. It appears a gene is missing as Jones talks about the placenta.

"That area of mum is really friendly to these cells and invites them in and seems to give off signals to say, 'Come on, keep invading,' and whatever that normal stop signal is - we don't know yet - doesn't seem to be there," she says.

The treatment is unclear. Jones mentions a possible cell transplant or a chemical change to "turn something off."

Some Success

In mice, immunologists were able to successfully transfer normal immune cells. "They actually moved them to the decidual area (lining of the uterus) and they did it in mid- to early-pregnancy and they were able to reverse the effect."

A timetable is unclear. Jones suggests not having a c-section if you don't have to and getting ultrasounds so doctors know if you have the condition.

England offers this caution: "There's not this warning to you, 'Well, if you're choosing to have more than one child this could happen.' Because I have a friend whose getting ready to have her fourth c-section and her doctor has never said a word to her."

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.