Postmortem microfocus computed tomography for early gestation fetuses: a validation study against conventional autopsy

Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2018 Apr;218(4):445.e1-445.e12. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2018.01.040. Epub 2018 Feb 2.


Background: Perinatal autopsy provides useful clinical information in up to 40% of cases. However, there is a substantial unmet clinical need with regards to postmortem investigation of early gestation fetal loss for parents for whom standard autopsy is either not available or not acceptable. Parents dislike the invasive nature of autopsy, but current clinical imaging techniques do not provide high-enough imaging resolution in small fetuses. We hypothesized that microfocus computed tomography, which is a rapid high-resolution imaging technique, could give accurate diagnostic imaging after early gestation fetal loss.

Objective: The objective of the study was to evaluate the diagnostic accuracy of microfocus computed tomography for noninvasive human fetal autopsy for early gestation fetuses, with the use of conventional autopsy as the reference standard.

Study design: We compared iodinated whole body microfocus computed tomography in 20 prospectively recruited fetuses (11-21 weeks gestation from 2 centers) with conventional autopsy in a double-blinded manner for a main diagnosis and findings in specific body organs. Fetuses were prepared with 10% formalin/potassium tri-iodide. Images were acquired with a microfocus computed tomography scanner with size-appropriate parameters. Images were evaluated independently by 2 pediatric radiologists, who were blinded to formal perinatal autopsy results, across 40 individual indices to reach consensus. The primary outcome was agreement between microfocus computed tomography and conventional autopsy for overall diagnosis.

Results: Postmortem whole body fetal microfocus computed tomography gave noninvasive autopsy in minutes, at a mean resolution of 27μm, with high diagnostic accuracy in fetuses at <22 weeks gestation. Autopsy demonstrated that 13 of 20 fetuses had structural abnormalities, 12 of which were also identified by microfocus computed tomography (92.3%). Overall, microfocus computed tomography agreed with overall autopsy findings in 35 of 38 diagnoses (15 true positive, 18 true negative; sensitivity 93.8% [95% confidence interval, 71.7-98.9%], specificity 100% [95% confidence interval, 82.4-100%]), with 100% agreement for body imaging diagnoses. Furthermore, after removal of nondiagnostic indices, there was agreement for 700 of 718 individual body organ indices that were assessed on microfocus computed tomography and autopsy (agreement, 97.5%; 95% confidence interval, 96.1-98.4%), with no overall differences between fetuses at ≤14 or >14 weeks gestation (agreement, 97.2% and 97.9%, respectively). Within first-trimester fetal loss cases (<14 weeks gestation), microfocus computed tomography analysis yielded significantly fewer nondiagnostic indices than autopsy examination (22/440 vs 48/348, respectively; P<.001).

Conclusion: Postmortem whole-body fetal microfocus computed tomography gives noninvasive, detailed anatomic examinations that are achieved in minutes at high resolution. Microfocus computed tomography may be preferable to magnetic resonance imaging in early gestation fetuses and may offer an acceptable method of examination after fetal loss for parents who decline invasive autopsy. This will facilitate autopsy and subsequent discussions between medical professionals who are involved in patient care and counselling for future pregnancies.

Keywords: autopsy; microfocus computed tomography; postmortem; termination of pregnancy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Validation Study
  • Video-Audio Media

MeSH terms

  • Aborted Fetus / diagnostic imaging*
  • Autopsy*
  • Cause of Death
  • Congenital Abnormalities / diagnostic imaging
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Female
  • Fetal Death / etiology*
  • Fetus / diagnostic imaging*
  • Gestational Age
  • Humans
  • Pregnancy
  • Prospective Studies
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Whole Body Imaging
  • X-Ray Microtomography*