New blood test could tell pregnant women whether birth will be premature

8 Jun 2018

Image: Dmitry Melnikov/Shutterstock

In the near future, a new non-invasive blood test could determine whether a pregnant woman is at risk of giving birth prematurely.

When a woman gives birth prematurely – deemed to be before 37 weeks – a number of potential complications can arise for the baby, ranging from physical development issues to behavioural and neurological disorders.

So now, new research funded by the US infant research group March of Dimes has published its findings on an experimental blood test that might be able to detect when a pregnant woman is likely to deliver her baby prematurely.

Existing medical knowledge has no way of accurately assessing whether any pregnancy will result in an early delivery, but this test was shown to have identified women who would go on to deliver babies up to two months prematurely.

Additionally, using those same blood samples, the team found biomarkers in maternal blood that could estimate gestational age or delivery date with comparable accuracy to ultrasound, but possibly at lower cost.

It is estimated that around 15m babies are born early across the world each year, equating to more than one in 10 births, with more than 1m of those dying shortly after.

Recent research from the US has shown that the number of premature births climbed to 9.93pc in 2017, up from 9.86 in 2016, making it the third consecutive annual increase after steady declines over the previous seven years.

‘Eavesdropping on a conversation’

Describing the blood test, the research team’s principal investigator, David Stevenson, likened it to “eavesdropping on a conversation” between the mother, the foetus and the placenta, without disturbing the pregnancy.

He added that the findings affirm the existence of a “transcriptomic clock of pregnancy” that could serve as a new way to assess the gestational age of a foetus.

“By measuring cell-free RNA in the circulation of the mother, we can observe changing patterns of gene activity that happen normally during pregnancy, and identify disruptions in the patterns that may signal to doctors that unhealthy circumstances like preterm labour and birth are likely to occur,” Stevenson said.

“With further study, we might be able to identify specific genes and gene pathways that could reveal some of the underlying causes of preterm birth, and suggest potential targets for interventions to prevent it.”

The next step for the research team is to validate the findings from these tests among two cohorts of women using larger, blind clinical trials.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic