Virtual autopsy and confirmation of normal fetal heart anatomy in the first trimester using three-dimensional (3D) reconstruction of histological sections

Rom J Morphol Embryol. 2021 Jan-Mar;62(1):101-108. doi: 10.47162/RJME.62.1.09.


Objective: In this pilot study, we tested the feasibility of cardiac structures reconstruction from histological sections in 12-13 weeks normal fetuses. Conventional autopsy is hampered at this gestational age because of the small size of the heart anatomical structures, while alternative non-invasive methods for pathology examination of the fetus are expensive, rarely available and lack accuracy data regarding the confirmation of first trimester heart defects suspected by early prenatal ultrasound (US) scans.

Materials and methods: Normal hearts from fetuses aged 12-13 gestational weeks (GW) were harvested for histological preparation, virtual reconstruction, and cardiac structures analysis. The normalcy of heart structures was confirmed before pregnancy termination, using a detailed US scan protocol. The fetal heart was routinely processed for formalin fixation and paraffin embedding (FFPE) and 10 μm seriate sections have been cut until finishing the specimen. All sections have been scanned and a three-dimensional (3D) reconstruction of the whole organ has been rendered, based on computer-aided manual tracing. Using the 3D navigation software, the main cardiac structures were searched for a proper and confident visualization.

Results: Five cases were investigated. Visualization of the normal heart cavities, including atrioventricular septum was very good in all fetuses. The entire course of right and left ventricle outflow tracts was confidently confirmed, along the branching pattern of aorta and pulmonary artery trunk. Regarding the veno-atrial connections, it was easy to identify the entrance of the inferior and superior caval veins into the right atrium, but a detailed review of the histological sections was necessary for the visualization of the left atrium venous openings. The inherent morphological deformation following heart block sectioning resulted in a lower resolution or quality of the "reconstructed" planes, but these distortions did not represent a significant impediment in any of the cases. The resources involved ordinary histology and information technology (IT) equipment. To further decrease the time involved by the protocol, many steps may be automated: cutting, coloring, and scanning.

Conclusions: The results indicate that this method can be implemented to routine clinical practice. The use of 3D reconstruction of fetal heart histological sections in first trimester may serve as an important audit to confirm the normalcy of heart structures. Also, the histological and postprocessed information is retained, and this volume can be stored, reanalyzed, or sent online for a second opinion. The method involves relatively undemanding resources, i.e., hardware, software, competences, and time. The procedure could also benefit from refinements used in other imaging techniques to limit human-computer interactions, such as sections distortion.

MeSH terms

  • Autopsy
  • Female
  • Fetal Heart* / diagnostic imaging
  • Gestational Age
  • Humans
  • Pilot Projects
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Trimester, First
  • Ultrasonography, Prenatal
  • Vena Cava, Superior*