NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports scary statistics for pregnant women in the United States — They’re more likely to die from childbirth or related causes than their counterparts in other wealthy countries.

Doctors are working to change that, including a team at Eastern Virginia Medical School focused on an organ that usually ends up getting thrown away.

Dr. Alfred Abuhamad, chairman of Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at EVMS is leading a five-year study that may help with the diagnosis of serious pregnancy complications much earlier — all because of the placenta.

“The placenta is an incredible organ for the wellbeing of the mother and the baby and, frankly, for the wellbeing of the population,” Abuhamad said. “Complications such as hypertension, post-partum hemorrhage, placental abnormalities, all of these complications could be detected potentially with what we’re doing.”

Right now, those kinds of problems can only be diagnosed as they happen, late in pregnancy.

“If we can identify markers in the first trimester, then potentially we can intervene and develop some treatment that will impact the pregnancy later on,” Abuhamad said.

He and his team believe those markers may lie within the placenta, which is why they’ve recruited hundreds of women who agree to more frequent and sophisticated ultrasounds throughout their pregnancies.

Now in its fifth year, the findings from the study could eventually save lives.

“Part of the reason why women die in pregnancy is because they develop complications that are really serious and threaten their life and the life of their unborn child,” Abuhamad said. “If we identify high risk pregnancy early on, we can inform of the risk and inform women to seek high risk pregnancy care.”

Abuhamad has much more to say about the powers of the placenta, including how it adapts to what the mother is exposed to and how it may even be an indicator of health issues much later in life.

Watch more excerpts from his interview with 10 On Your Side here.