New unit is detecting heart defects in babies earlier in pregnancy

Posted on Monday 16th July 2018
Rachel Slaughter, Erin Slaughter, plus images of the fetal cardiology unit

Rachel with her daughter, Erin, and images of the new fetal cardiology unit

Heart abnormalities can now be diagnosed in babies at an earlier stage of pregnancy thanks to high resolution scanners in the new fetal cardiology unit at Evelina London.

Fetal cardiology is the study of a baby's heart in the womb, new scanners at Evelina London mean that heart defects can be detected as early as 12 weeks into a pregnancy, instead of at the 20-week scan.

Three new SMI (Superb Microvascular Imaging) Toshiba i800 ultrasound systems are providing higher quality and more detailed images than ever before. The state-of-the-art scanners give experts a clear view of an unborn baby’s heart and blood vessels and detect the movement of blood within the heart.

Rachel Slaughter, 38 from Maidstone in Kent, has the rare congenital heart defect Ebstein’s anomaly and had a hole in her heart. She was diagnosed when pregnant with her first child, Erin, now three.

Rachel underwent open-heart surgery 10 months after Erin was born and was told that she would need scans during any future pregnancies to see if the baby had inherited her condition. She discovered she was pregnant again in December 2017 and was scanned with the new equipment.

She said: “It was a huge relief to hear that the baby’s heart looked normal at 15 weeks. I had been feeling anxious so it was great that I could have early reassurance and remove that worry so I could enjoy the pregnancy. The sonographer couldn’t see anything of concern and I had further scans at 20 and 30 weeks which confirmed that the baby’s heart is working well.

“The team at the Evelina London fetal cardiology unit are really skilled in what they do and are very good at making you feel at ease at a time that can be stressful.”

John Simpson, professor of paediatric and fetal cardiology at Evelina London, said: “Confirmation that nothing is wrong is hugely reassuring for parents with a high-risk pregnancy and the new ultrasound scanning technology is a game changer for babies diagnosed with heart defects. Earlier diagnosis gives us much more time to plan care, to prepare parents for what is ahead and provide them with specialist support.”

A research study, led by Dr Vita Zidere, consultant fetal and paediatric cardiologist at Evelina London, is currently assessing how well the SMI technique diagnoses fetal heart conditions compared with conventional ultrasound scanning methods.

Evelina London’s new fetal cardiology unit recently opened after undergoing major improvements and is now located closer to maternity services in St Thomas’ Hospital. It features new counselling rooms, one of which was funded by The Lord Leonard and Lady Estelle Wolfson Foundation. A review room allows doctors to observe scans, and diagnose any problems there and then, cutting down on review and waiting times.

The ultrasound rooms contain additional monitors so that expectant parents can watch their scans in greater comfort. A live video link to the Harris Birthright Centre at King’s College Hospital means doctors at both sites can share scans and pool their expertise. There are also beautiful pieces of art designed to minimise stress, funded by The Mark Armitage Charitable Trust.

Professor Simpson added: “We have always been unique in the capital because of our co-location with St Thomas’ Hospital. Having obstetrics, neonatal intensive care, cardiac surgery and children’s specialists available on one site enables us to diagnose babies before they are born, deliver them, and provide immediate treatment in the same place.”

The fetal cardiology teams at Evelina London and King’s College Hospital work in partnership to carry out around 1,000 scans a year. The combined team, which is part of King’s Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre, is the first in the UK to use this technique to detect heart problems early.

Women offered this type of scan include those who have had a baby with major heart problems before, women who have a family history of heart problems or those whose babies are found to have increased nuchal translucency at the routine 12-week scan. This is when unborn babies have a thickness at the back of their neck which can suggest that they have a heart abnormality or a genetic condition.

The scanners have been funded by Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, the Eranda Rothschild Foundation and funding from the Chancellor using Libor Funds.

Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity raises money for big things and small touches that make our life-saving care even better and help our patients and their families feel really looked after. For more information on fundraising for Evelina London visit the Support Evelina London website.