Top surveillance experts drafted in to help save babies’ lives | Action Medical Research

Top surveillance experts drafted in to help save babies’ lives

13 August 2010

Top surveillance experts - whose skills are normally used to analyse moving images such as CCTV footage – have joined forces with maternity doctors in a unique project - funded by children’s health charity Action Medical Research – to try to find a way to prevent stillbirth.

This unique research team is hoping to harness the skills and technology used in security surveillance systems to build up a picture of how babies move in the womb as they develop. This can be used to help women at high risk of stillbirth, to detect unusual changes to the movement of their baby which might indicate a problem.

Bereaved mothers often say that their baby’s movements in the womb seemed to decrease in the days leading up to the stillbirth. Sadly, around 4,000 babies are stillborn each year in the UK.¹

The researchers – who have received a three-year grant from Action Medical Research - are using the funding to try to develop a new way to monitor a baby’s movements using sophisticated computer programs that analyse moving pictures from ultrasound scans.

Dr Yolande Harley, Deputy Director of Research for Action Medical Research, said: “This unusual collaboration between a maternity hospital and IT experts is a very exciting project which has the potential to make a big difference to women whose babies are at risk of being stillborn.”

They believe this high-tech new fetal surveillance system might help prevent stillbirth by alerting doctors when a baby’s life is at risk. The project leader, Dr Stephen Ong, is a consultant at the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital in Belfast and has a strong background in studying small babies who are at risk of stillbirth.

He has joined forces with Dr Fatih Kurugollu, an experienced software engineer who has worked extensively on security surveillance systems and is based at Queen’s University, Belfast. They are also joined by Dr Joan Condell from the University of Ulster, who is a specialist in analysing movement.

Dr Ong said: “In my years as a doctor I have worked with women who have unfortunately suffered the heartbreak of their baby being stillborn and I really hope that by working in this unique way, our research team will be able to make a difference in the long term.”

Dr Joan Condell, said: “I did a PHD in detecting movement in images and up to now our work has been very technical and computer-based. However the principles of detecting people moving inside buildings and in car parks on CCTV also applies to babies in the womb. It is wonderful to see our work being put into practical applications."

The research team are in the early stages of the project and will be taking one-minute long ultrasound scans of around 100 healthy women, who are five to six months pregnant, and recording what they see on DVD.

The scans provide moving pictures of the babies in the womb. The researchers are then using the surveillance expertise to see whether it is possible to recognise and analyse the babies’ movements using state-of-the-art computer programs, which incorporate pattern-recognition software.

Similar software is already used widely for other purposes, for example when analysing CCTV footage from security surveillance systems or recognising a person’s voice or face in high security installations.

Ultimately the researchers hope to develop a mobile device which pregnant women, at risk of stillbirth, could use in their own homes. They envisage relaying data from the device wirelessly to a computer. This could give doctors a chance to intervene in a way that could save the baby’s life, for example, delivering the baby early.

Dr Kurugollu said: “This is a unique opportunity to apply our skills and technical knowledge to the research being carried out by Dr Ong. When we were approached to take part in this project it was unlike anything we had done before. It is a fantastic chance to hopefully make a difference for some babies’ futures.”

Notes to editors:

A case study story of a mother from Ireland, who had one son before having a stillborn daughter, but then went on successfully to have a second healthy son, under Dr Ong’s care, is available to illustrate this story. If you are interested in using the case study, please contact Claudine Weeks.

For further information contact:
Claudine Weeks, Communications Manager
Tel: 01403 327478

Action Medical Research is the leading UK-wide medical research charity dedicated to helping babies and children. We know that medical research can save and change children’s lives. For nearly 60 years we have been instrumental in significant medical breakthroughs, including the development of the UK polio vaccine and ultrasound scanning in pregnancy. Today, we continue to find and fund the very best medical research to help stop the suffering of babies and children caused by disease and disability. We want to make a difference in:

  • tackling premature birth and treating sick and vulnerable babies
  • helping children affected by disability, disabling conditions and infections
  • targeting rare diseases that together severely affect many forgotten children.


  1. Confidential Enquiry into Maternal and Child Health, Perinatal Mortality 2007, June 2009.
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