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Dr Alys Clark featured in North and South magazine

14 March 2018

When a pregnancy unexpectedly goes wrong, the key organ that’s assessed after the birth is the placenta. “It’s the lifeline for the baby: the point where the baby’s blood comes in contact with the mother’s blood,” says scientist Alys Clark, who’s based at the University of Auckland’s Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI).

The 36-year-old is leading an international team, including researchers from Oxford University, that’s building a virtual placenta in the hopes of helping to reduce the number of surprise complications and abnormalities. A key area they'll focus on is why a baby suddenly stops growing, and has to be delivered quickly or early. “There are still a lot of things that can go wrong in pregnancy,” Clark says. “In particular, a normal pregnancy can suddenly go wrong and we don’t know why.”

The virtual placenta has the same structure as a real one, and will be tested under various conditions to see what makes it malfunction - information that could one day be used in conjunction with ultrasound scans to identify women at risk of developing problems.

Clark is also collaborating with physiologist Jo James, at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, using a combination of real anatomical inputs and computational models to look at how the structure of blood vessels in the placenta (illustrated above) affect its function.

Originally published in the April 2018 issue of North and South magazine. The original publication incorrectly stated Jones, not Dr Alys Clark, is also collaborating with physiologist Jo James. This has been corrected.