Scientists develop blood test to predict likelihood of premature births

Scientists develop blood test to predict likelihood of premature births

David K. Stevenson, M.D., the principal investigator of the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Stanford University, described the noninvasive blood test approach as a way of "eavesdropping on a conversation" between the mother, the fetus and the placenta, without disturbing the pregnancy.

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.

Doctors also need better methods for measuring gestational age, he added.

By searching for evidence of genetic activity in the mother's blood, it could be possible to not only pin down a delivery date, but determine whether the baby is at risk of being born before it's ready. That's similar to the accuracy rate of ultrasounds during the first trimester, the researchers said.

That highlights the "big question", Moley said: If this blood test - or any other test - becomes available, what can be done to prevent a woman from going into preterm labor?

"I've spent a lot of time over the years working to understand preterm delivery", Mads Melbye, senior author of the study and the president and CEO of the Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen, said in a statement. "While ultrasound gives us a good idea of how far along a given pregnancy is. what it doesn't tell us is when a given woman will deliver".

Stanford and Danish researchers examined the blood of more than 31 women every week during their pregnancies. While it's not exact, with accuracy at 45-percent, it's still close to the current benchmark method of ultrasound, which is 48-percent accurate. The lead authors are former Stanford postdoctoral scholar Thuy Ngo and Stanford graduate student Mira Moufarrej.

Defined as a baby arriving at least three weeks early, premature birth affects 9% of U.S. births and is the top cause of death before age 5 among children worldwide.

They next studied two separate cohorts of pregnant women who were known to be at risk of premature birth either because of previous preterm deliveries or because they had experienced premature contractions.

Most of the implicated genes are from the mother, the researchers reported.

The researchers are planning a much larger study to see if the test works when applied to a broader population of women. This shows that the test is more reliable than the ultrasound and is much cheaper and faster. They're also keen to explore whether the genes signaling prematurity hold clues about the triggers for early arrivals, and they hope to discover targets for drugs that could delay premature birth. A study by the University of Pennsylvania linked such births to changes in the mother's bacteria. According to the news outlet, delegates from nation's largest physicians group are expected to vote on a resolution to encourage birth control manufacturers to submit applications to the FDA to switch the status of their pills from prescription to over the counter.

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