Confirmation of Heart Malformations in Fetuses in the First Trimester Using Three-Dimensional Histologic Autopsy : Obstetrics & Gynecology

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Confirmation of Heart Malformations in Fetuses in the First Trimester Using Three-Dimensional Histologic Autopsy

Ruican, Dan MD; Petrescu, Ana-Maria MD, PhD; Istrate-Ofiţeru, Anca-Maria MD, PhD; Roșu, Gabriela Camelia MD, PhD; Zorilă, George-Lucian MD, PhD; Dîră, Laurenţiu Mihai MD, PhD; Nagy, Rodica Daniela MD, PhD; Mogoantă, Laurenţiu MD, PhD; Pirici, Daniel MD, PhD; Iliescu, Dominic Gabriel MD, PhD

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Obstetrics & Gynecology 141(6):p 1209-1218, June 2023. | DOI: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000005169

Congenital heart disease (CHD) affects nearly 1% of newborns and represents a leading cause of infant mortality; 18% of affected infants die within the first year of life, which accounts for more than half of childhood deaths secondary to congenital malformations.1 Moreover, in a long-term infant mortality survey, the World Health Organization reports that 42% of infant deaths were attributable to cardiac defects.2

Major structural abnormalities can be detected by ultrasonography in the late first trimester.3,4 However, diagnostic accuracy is heavily influenced by several factors, such as ultrasonographer expertise,5 protocol used,6 equipment quality, severity of CHD,7 and gestational age at the time of ultrasound examination.8–10 In contrast with the second trimester, when conventional autopsy can be performed to evaluate fetal heart structures,11–13 first-trimester conventional autopsy is less accurate.14 Fetal autopsies after first-trimester loss or termination are hindered by the small cardiac size as well as the cardiac anatomy’s intricacy and great diversity of cardiac malformations. In addition, accuracy can be heavily influenced by the experience of the pathologist.

Imaging methods such as 9,4-T magnetic resonance imaging and microcomputed tomography15–17 have been proposed for confirmation of fetal heart anomalies detected by ultrasonography. The value of these imaging methods has been confirmed by comparing the results with those of stereomicroscopic examination or conventional autopsy at more than 13 weeks of gestation.18,19 However, although these methods offer high-quality images of the fetal heart, they require highly specialized equipment and training, which are not available in many settings.

Three-dimensional (3D) reconstruction of serial histologic slices represents a complex and informative imaging method20 that may improve the capacity to evaluate for cardiac malformations at earlier gestational ages. This study represents a continuation of our previous work,20 in which we successfully identified all anatomic elements of the normal first-trimester fetal heart using histologic 3D imaging reconstruction. We hypothesized that this technique would be useful for verification of fetal heart anomalies detected prenatally at the first-trimester anomaly scan.


This was a cohort study of pregnant women who elected first-trimester pregnancy termination in the setting of a fetus with suspected CHD on first-trimester ultrasound examination. Medical termination of pregnancy was performed using mifepristone and misoprostol, according to national guidelines. Before termination, at 12–13 weeks of gestation, a detailed ultrasound examination was performed by a team of experienced maternal–fetal medicine subspecialists using transabdominal ultrasonography following a previously published protocol6 using color or high-definition directional power Doppler.21 A transvaginal approach was used when transabdominal imaging was inadequate. Voluson E10 and E8 systems equipped with RM6C and RIC5-9-D convex transducers were used for the ultrasound examinations.

After medical termination of pregnancy, fetal autopsy was performed. The fetal hearts were removed and sent to the University of Medicine and Pharmacy Craiova's Research Centre for Microscopic Morphology and Immunology for further evaluation. The tissue was preserved in 10% neutral buffered formalin for 15 days, and paraffin embedding followed the standard protocol. Using a motorized HMB450 rotary microtome, each heart block was sectioned in serial 10-micrometer–thick sections. Sectioned slices were collected with a specific section transfer system on poly-l-lysine–prepared slides for improved adherence and left to dry at 37°C for 1 day. All slides were numbered to preserve slices in the correct sequence.

Subsequently, we used the standard histologic protocol for hematoxylin-eosin staining. Special coloration (periodic acid-Schiff stain, Masson's trichrome stain, and orcein) was used to confirm specific features, such as fibroelastosis in certain malformations. The colored slides were scanned using a Motic EasyScan scanner at 20× objective and saved in a proprietary format in the Motic Digital Slide Assistant package database. Image resolution was set to 72×72 dpi and quality to 10 using the “Batch image manipulation” plugin in GNU Image Manipulation Program (Fig. 1). This enabled faster manipulation in the 3D reconstruction software. We eliminated the slides with tissue roll or rupture during the histology process.

Fig. 1.:
Steps in the three-dimensional reconstruction of the fetal heart using seriate histologic slices. Image created using Amira Avizo software.

The images were imported into Amira Avizo software. The auto align function was used to align slices, and only minor manual adjustments were necessary. We used the “threshold” function with a masking range of 75–160 voxel value for segmentation. Artifact removal significantly improves the overall aspect of the volume easily and relatively fast using the “brush,” “blow,” or “lasso” tools. Segmentation then was performed to individualize heart structures using the “brush” tool, and each element of interest was assigned a different color (Fig. 1).

We used different sections through the reconstructed heart to evaluate the heart structure and highlight the defects. We generally aimed to section the fetal heart rendered volume according to the classic key planes of the ultrasound cardiac sweep (four-chamber view, left and right ventricular outflow tracts). In addition, certain functions can be applied to the volume to strengthen the results. To better visualize the differences between the left and right ventricles of the heart, we used “compute ambient occlusion” and “interactive threshold” to render the cavities' volumes. The 3D reconstructions and histologic slides (when needed) were analyzed and reviewed by a multidisciplinary team that included maternal–fetal medicine subspecialists and pathologists.

The ethical norms and good practice in scientific research were followed throughout the study. Therefore, the research ethics committees of the University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Craiova (no. 27/24.02.2021) and of the Emergency County Clinical Hospital of Craiova (no. 38680/13.09.2021) approved this study. Informed consent was obtained from all of the included patients.


Six fetuses with suspected heart malformations were investigated using histologic 3D imaging reconstruction: two with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, two with atrioventricular septal defects, one with an isolated ventricular septal defect, and one with transposition of the great arteries. Turner syndrome and trisomy 21 were detected with genetic analysis in the ventricular septal defect and atrioventricular septal defect cases, respectively.

After the segmentation process, we identified the cardiac structures and all of the defects detected by first-trimester fetal echocardiography. Even a small defect, such as the isolated ventricular septal defect (Fig. 2), was visualized using the lateral views of the septum from the right and left ventricles in 3D reconstruction (Fig. 3).

Fig. 2.:
Duplex grayscale and color Doppler cardiac sweep in a fetus with Turner syndrome at 12 3/7 weeks of gestation showing a ventricular septal defect. A. Four-chamber view revealing an apical communication between the atrioventricular flows, suggesting ventricular septal defect. B. Normal left ventricular outflow tract (LVOT). C. Normal right ventricular outflow tract (RVOT). D. Normal confluence of the arterial arches (V-sign). LV, left ventricle; RV, right ventricle; DA, ductus arteriosus; AoA, aortic arch.
Fig. 3.:
Long-axis planes of the volume revealing the aspect of the interventricular septum and the ventricular outflow tracts. The interventricular septal defect is indicated with the yellow full arrow. A. View from the right ventricle (RV). B. View from the left ventricle (LV). Ao, aorta; PA, pulmonary artery; RVOT, right ventricular outflow tract; RA, right atrium; AoV, aortic valve; LVOT, left ventricular outflow tract; LA, left atrium; Images created using Amira Avizo software.

The cases with more severe defects detected on ultrasound examination, such as the atrioventricular septal defect (Fig. 4), were straightforward to confirm in 3D histologic reconstruction (Fig. 5). An axial plane through the heart reveals the incomplete ventricular and atrial septum. The abnormal anatomy of the atrioventricular valves is evident—only one cusp is visible on each side because of the common atrioventricular valve (Fig. 5). Furthermore, in this case, the systematic evaluation of the structures enabled the diagnosis of additional anomalies not detected at the time of the first-trimester ultrasound examination. We noted a bicuspid aortic valve (Appendix 1, available online at and a rare anatomical variant regarding the thymus position in relation to the left brachiocephalic vein. The right lobe of the thymus was located posteriorly to the left brachiocephalic vein, a rare variation that is important to be aware of in the advent of thymic interventions (Appendix 2, available online at

Fig. 4.:
Transabdominal (A–D) and transvaginal (E–H) cardiac sweep in a fetus with atrioventricular septal defect at 12 2/7 weeks of gestation. A. Duplex examination of the four-chamber view: blood flow across the ventricular septal defect in the Doppler window (open arrow). B. Normal left ventricular outflow tract (LVOT). C. Normal right ventricular outflow tract (RVOT). D. Normal confluence of the arterial arches (V-sign). E. Atrioventricular septum defect (yellow open arrow) with atrioventricular valves opened (yellow arrows). F. Normal LVOT. G. Normal RVOT. H. Normal confluence of the arterial arches (V-sign). I. Closed atrioventricular valves revealing a single atrioventricular valve bridging the left and right sides of the heart (open arrows). J. Pulsed Doppler interrogation of the common valve showing regurgitation. K. Increased nuchal translucency. LV, left ventricle; RV, right ventricle; DA, ductus arteriosus; AoA, aortic arch.
Fig. 5.:
Overall aspect of the thoracic cavity in the case in which the atrioventricular defect was detected prenatally. The axial plane through the apex of the heart, similar to the four-chamber view, reveals the absence of septum primum and part of the ventricular septum (yellow circle). Only one cusp is detected on each side because of the abnormal common atrioventricular valve (yellow full arrows). Atrial and ventricular views confirm the absence of the septum and the valve’s appearance. Ao, aorta; IAS, interatrial septum; RA, right atrium; LA, left atrium; RL, right lung; RB, right bronchia; E, esophagus; CAVV, common atrioventricular valve; LL, left lung; LV, left ventricle; IVS, interventricular septum; RV, right ventricle; PA, pulmonary artery; LVOT, left ventricular outflow tract; L, lateral leaflet; AB, anterior bridge; PB, posterior bridge; A, anterior leaflet. Image created using Amira Avizo software.

For the cases in which hypoplastic left heart syndrome was detected (Fig. 6), we emphasized the differences between the two ventricles and great vessels through multiple modalities. The fastest way to evaluate the ventricular size discrepancy was to investigate the axial sections of the reconstructed heart (Fig. 7), similar and parallel to the four-chamber view plane. Longitudinal long-axis views of the fetal heart highlight the size differences of both ventricular and outflow tracts (Appendix 3, part C, available online at The cavities' relative sizes can be further highlighted and compared using the volume modification functions (Appendix 3, part A, Also, a transverse section at the base of the heart illustrates the caliber difference between the normal pulmonary artery and hypoplastic aorta (Appendix 3, part B,

Fig. 6.:
Duplex gray scale and color Doppler heart sweep in apical (A–C) and lateral incidence (D–F) in fetus with hypoplastic left heart syndrome at 12 weeks of gestation. A and D. Reduced and reversed atrioventricular flow on the left side suggesting hypoplastic left heart. B and E. The aorta is hardly identifiable and with reversed flow at the vessels, crossing plane. C and F. Reversed flow in the aortic arch suggesting retrograde filling through the ductus arteriosus. G. Normal tricuspid flow. H. Mitral regurgitation suggestive of dysplastic mitral valve syndrome. I. Doppler of the ductus venosus with normal waveform. J. Borderline increased frontomaxillary angle and thickened nuchal translucency. RV, right ventricle; LV, left ventricle; LVOT, left ventricle outflow tract; RVOT, right ventricle outflow tract; DA, ductus arteriosus; AoA, aortic arch.
Fig. 7.:
Parallel axial planes of the fetal heart revealing the differences between the smaller left (red full arrow) and right cavities. DA, ductus arteriosus; Ao, aorta; PA, pulmonary artery; LAA, left atrial appendage; RA, right atrium; RV, right ventricle; LV, left ventricle; IAS, interatrial septum; IVS, interventricular septum; LA, left atrium. Image created using Amira Avizo software.

The ultrasound scan revealed a nonfunctional but thickened and echogenic left ventricle, suggesting myocardial hypertrophy and endocardial fibroelastosis. This led us to investigate the presence of cardiomyopathy and endocardial fibroelastosis using special histologic colorations (Appendix 4, available online at Ventricular wall hypertrophy was accompanied by increased subendothelial density of the collagen, fibrin, and elastic fibers, consistent with endocardial fibroelastosis.

In the transposition of the great arteries case (Fig. 8), the main characteristics of the anomaly were evident using histologic 3D imaging reconstruction: parallel vessel alignment (Fig. 9A) and ventriculoarterial discordance, where the aorta arises from the morphologic right ventricle and the pulmonary artery arises from the morphologic left ventricle (Fig. 9B). Furthermore, evaluation of the coronary arteries was possible, and we noted the circumflex artery arising from the right coronary artery (Fig. 9C).

Fig. 8.:
Transabdominal duplex grayscale and color Doppler cardiac sweep in a fetus with transposition of the great arteries at 13 0/7 weeks of gestation. A. Normal four-chamber view. B. Aorta arising from the right ventricle (RV), and the pulmonary artery arising from the left side. C. Confluence of the arterial arches showing parallel vessels. LV, left ventricle; Ao, aorta; PA, pulmonary artery; AoA, aortic arch; DA, ductus arteriosus.
Fig. 9.:
Three-dimensional reconstruction of a fetal heart with transposition of the great arteries at 13 weeks of gestation. A. Lateral view showing the aorta parallel to the pulmonary artery. B. Parallel ejection tracts and ventriculoarterial discordance. C. Side-by-side placement of the great arteries at the base of the heart and coronary arteries evaluation, arising from the aorta, and circumflex artery branching from the right coronary artery. LCA, left carotid artery; RCA, right carotid artery; LSA, left subclavian artery; AoA, aortic arch; BCT, brachiocephalic trunk; DA, ductus arteriosus; PA, pulmonary artery; Ao, aorta; DAo, descending aorta; LPA, left pulmonary artery; SVC, superior vena cava; LA, left atrium; RPA, right pulmonary artery; RAA, right atrium auricle; RA, right atrium; IVC, inferior vena cava; AoV, aortic valve; PV, pulmonary valve; RVOT, right ventricular outflow tract; LVOT, left ventricular outflow tract; CxA, circumflex artery; RCoA, right coronary artery; LCoA, left coronary artery. Image created using Amira Avizo software.


Given the high incidence of CHD, a reliable and widely available method to confirm malformations detected prenatally by ultrasonography should be available. In this article, we demonstrate the ability to confirm CHD detected on first-trimester ultrasound examination in fetal specimens after termination of pregnancy or pregnancy loss using histologic 3D imaging reconstruction. The histologic 3D imaging reconstruction protocol used in our study is relatively low cost and employs generic equipment and easily acquirable software. Furthermore, the learning curve of each step is not steep, because the technique is widely used in general pathology practice. The process can be automated, further reducing the time needed to prepare and scan the histologic slides.22

The studies throughout the literature note that perinatal autopsy performed in the second or third trimester serves not only as an audit for prenatal ultrasound examination findings but also identifies additional anomalies.23–25 The same statement may now be applied to the first trimester using this technique. Histologic 3D imaging reconstruction allowed us to identify the ultrasound-detected anomalies in a small but diverse series of cases (cardiac chambers and conotruncal anomalies) and facilitated the diagnosis of additional findings (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and fibroelastosis in the hypoplastic left heart syndrome case, bicuspid aortic valve and the anatomical variant of the thymus in the atrioventricular septal defect case, and the branching variation of the coronary arteries in the transposition of the great arteries case)26,27 that could not have been established by ultrasonography at the time of the first-trimester scan. These additional findings may affect counseling of the patient regarding recurrence risk.28,29

Perinatal autopsy complemented with histologic examination remains the gold standard for fetal anatomy assessment, even in the era of high-resolution computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging.30 Histologic 3D imaging reconstruction is an important step in the field. It provides additional advantages, including medical teaching31–37 and telemedicine, because the reconstructions can be re-examined by various practitioners. This technique also facilitates remote analysis and reduces the time and costs of transfer of physical pathology samples between institutions.

Histologic 3D imaging reconstruction also provides an opportunity to retain specific slices for supplementary special stains, which can aid in evaluating the fetal heart38 or add valuable information to standard autopsy.24,39,40 In the hypoplastic left heart syndrome case, we improved the diagnosis by detecting endocardial fibroelastosis41,42 and characterized the associated hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This finding is important in clinical care, because the literature suggests a genetic component of this disease43 as well as an association with maternal anti-Ro and anti-La antibodies.44,45

One limitation of this technique is that distortion can occur from one image to another due to tissue shrinkage throughout the process or inhomogeneous relaxation of sections before mounting.46–48 Methods are available to overcome this limitation,49–51 and automation of the slicing and scanning, user-friendly software, and experienced team members can overcome these technical issues.

In conclusion, we demonstrate the capacity to confirm fetal heart anomalies using 3D histologic imaging reconstruction of fetal hearts. The findings using histologic 3D imaging reconstruction consistently confirmed the first-trimester ultrasound imaging findings of congenital heart anomalies and, in some cases, identified additional anomalies.


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