Dr Niamh Nowlan
Dr Niamh Nowlan is a lecturer in bioengineering at Imperial College London. What does your work involve?
We’re interested in how a baby’s movement in the womb affects development of their bones and joints, and particularly in hip dysplasia.
Hip dysplasia is one of the most common malformations in babies, and babies diagnosed with the condition may be at increased risk of hip osteoarthritis in later life.
Hip dysplasia is linked to both family history and the movement of the baby in the womb. I’m an engineer by training and am particularly interested in how the physical forces experienced by the baby when it kicks in the womb affect the growth and health of the hip joint.
Understanding more about the mechanical forces that occur in the joints due foetal movement will help us to understand why the joint sometimes forms abnormally.
How long have we been funding you?
Our lab was established in September 2011, and the project you funded started in September 2014. It’s fantastic that the charity supports researchers like me, who are at a relatively early stage of their career.
In the project, we’re using medical images of the moving foetus to calculate what physical forces occur in the joints when an unborn baby kicks. We’ll investigate how these forces change as the baby grows, or when the baby’s movement is restricted.
What’s the most important thing you have found out in the past 12 months? Why?
We recently discovered why particular positions that a baby adopts in the womb may increase the risk of hip dysplasia. Our results show that when the femur is tightly located in the pelvis, this encourages a stable hip joint to form.
However, when a baby is in a breech position, which is where the head is up rather than down, this leads to abnormal movement at the hip joint. This can affect the stability of the hip after birth.
What do you hope or expect to achieve as a result of our funding?
I expect that we’ll be able to describe how certain foetal positions or conditions inside the womb increase the risk of hip dysplasia. In doing so, we’ll enable better identification of babies at high risk of developing the condition.
What do you do in a typical day?
A typical day during term time would likely include some lectures to biomedical engineering undergraduate or postgraduate students, meetings with research students and postdocs, writing research papers and preparing new research grant applications.
I aim to read a new paper every day to keep up with what’s going on in the wider research area and to inspire new ideas and directions.
What’s your greatest research achievement?
Gosh, that’s a hard question! I think the research finding that I’m most excited by so far is work of ours that showed that development of the bones and joints in an unborn baby may be influenced by physical forces external to the womb, such as the mother’s movement.
I’ve a close personal interest in our work – I had hip dysplasia as a baby, and I now have osteoarthritis in my right hip.
If we understood more about why babies get hip dysplasia, this would open the door to the possibility of enhanced treatments or possibly ways to prevent hip dysplasia occurring.
Do you ever think about how your work can help people with arthritis?
Certainly. Finding a way to prevent hip dysplasia, or reduce the severity of the condition, would lead to a decrease in the number of people developing hip osteoarthritis.
My hope is that our work will lead to improved or preventative treatments for hip dysplasia that would increase the chances of babies having healthy hips throughout their lives.
What would you do if you weren’t a clinician/researcher?
I love the variety of the academic life and the fact that the research we do has the potential to make a real and positive difference to patients and to society. I really can’t imagine anything else I would rather do.
I love to go for walks in Hampstead Heath or Kew Gardens, or further afield. I’m also a big cycling fan, and think it really is the best way to get around London. The low-impact exercise is also good for my hip!
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