An RMIT researcher has been collaborating with the Mothers and Babies Research Centre to develop mathematical modelling to predict premature childbirth.
In Australia, around eight per cent of babies are born prematurely (before 37 weeks gestation) every year.
Most premature babies are born between 32 and 36 weeks gestation, and almost all grow up to be healthy children.
Sadly, some babies die as a result of being born too early because their organs are too immature to function properly outside the uterus.
It is difficult to predict which pregnancies will end prematurely and most often, no specific trigger is found for premature births.
As there is currently no accurate screening test available to identify women at risk, Dr Peter Sokolowski, Research Fellow in the School of Engineering, believes using mathematical modelling for preterm prediction must be an absolute priority.
Sokolowski collaborated with the John Hunter Hospital in New South Wales on a research project funded by an Australian Postgraduate Award and the Thyne Reid Trust entitled Mathematical Modelling of Human Parturition (Childbirth), where he focused on the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) aspects of the project.
"Understanding the processes of human birth is arguably the greatest challenge in clinical medicine. The intrauterine health of a baby is seen as a major predictor for adult disease," Sokolowski said.
"Being able to identify or predict when a baby will be born prematurely is of great benefit, as early intervention may reduce both the risks and costs encountered while caring for premature babies, as well as the on-going health concerns for that individual.
"In general, the risk of premature babies having severe disabilities depends on their degree of prematurity and the severity of illness they experienced following birth."
Around one-third of babies born at 24 weeks will develop a significant disability such as intellectual disability, cerebral palsy, blindness or deafness.
Minor disabilities, such as reading or learning problems, usually do not show up until school age. Babies born close to full term usually have no long-term health problems as a result of their early birth.
"It has been a common belief that uterine stretch is an important determinant of the onset of labour in pregnant women," Sokolowski said.
"By mathematically modelling the uterus using the laws of Laplace, we were able to model the trajectories of growth and uterine stretch.
"Analysing these trajectories has challenged the belief that uterine stretch may trigger labour."
Following on from this work, pioneering research by Professor Roger Smith and his team at the Mothers and Babies Research Centre has led to the discovery of an "electrical switch" in the uterine muscle that fails to engage in pregnant women who are overweight, potentially causing labour complications.
Sokolowski has specialised in many areas of electrical engineering including power distribution, high voltage, electrical design, systems integration, supervisory control and data acquisition systems, smart metering, condition monitoring, data analysis and insights, research and innovation, biomedical engineering, business case development, asset, change and project management.
In 2015, Sokolowski was elevated to a Chartered Fellow of Engineers Australia, and was among the youngest to be recognised as a true leader in the industry and the profession.
Story: Petra van Nieuwenhoven