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Imaging Technique Examines Uterine Electrophysiology in Preterm Contractions

EMMI images of uterine contractions in women

EMMI images of uterine contractions in women

A new imaging tool under development will examine the electrophysiology of the uterus, with the ultimate goal of learning why some women experience preterm contractions and preterm birth while others do not. 

“We are trying to develop a safe, noninvasive technique that will allow us to see what happens to the electrical signals in the uterus before abnormal uterine contractions,” says Yong Wang, PhD, a biomedical engineering researcher at the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Washington University, who is leading development of the technique.

The new tool is based on a cardiac-imaging method developed by Yoram Rudy, PhD, also a biomedical engineering researcher at the university. Called electrocardiographic imaging, or ECGI, Rudy’s technique uses hundreds of body-surface electrodes to collect the heart’s electrical signals and, with a mathematical algorithm, projects them onto a 3-D image created from a computed tomography (CT) scan of the heart. 

Wang, who studied in Rudy’s lab, is working to translate that technique from the heart to the uterus. His method, called electromyometrial imaging, or EMMI, will allow researchers to identify the sites where uterine contractions begin as well as the velocity and direction of contractions.

In the first phase of the project, Wang and colleagues are developing the noninvasive imaging technique and validating its accuracy in an animal model. The second phase will involve human studies. 

As part of the research, investigators will compare EMMI images of uterine contractions in women who delivered babies prematurely with those in women who did not experience preterm contractions and gave birth at term. They will also compare images from women who had preterm contractions but did not deliver prematurely with those of women who had preterm contractions and preterm births.

“We first want to understand the physiology behind preterm contractions,” Wang says. “Then we will be able to evaluate different treatment options by determining whether they have an effect on electrical activation in the uterus.”

The project is being conducted at Washington University’s Prematurity Research Center, funded by the March of Dimes Foundation. The center is one of five in the country focused on understanding the root causes of premature birth. Unlike the other four centers, the Washington University center is involved in several projects that draw on the expertise of biomedical engineers to investigate preterm birth, Wang says.

“We are quickly translating a lot of new technology from the biomedical engineering and cardiology fields to ob/gyn,” he says. “I'm eager to see where this work takes us.”

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