New Blood Test May Help Predict Premature Births For Pregnant Women

Premature birth test being trialled

He added that today's findings affirm the existence of a "transcriptomic clock of pregnancy" that could serve as a new way to assess the gestational age of a fetus.

Using blood samples from two thirds of the women, the researchers created a model to predict how RNA levels change over the course of pregnancy. The researchers are planning a much larger study to see if the test works when applied to a broader population of women.

Preterm births occur in approximately 12 percent of all live births in the US - and it is the cause of about 70 percent of newborn deaths, according to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

'We found that a handful of genes are very highly predictive of which women are at risk for preterm delivery, ' said Melbye.

The noninvasive procedure may help doctors prepare for hard pregnancies, which can endanger the child's life.

Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering at Stanford, is a senior author on the paper, hopes that the blood test will give women "a safer and more comfortable pregnancy, both physically and psychologically".

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.

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The research was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Stanford University, the March of Dimes Prematurity Initiative Grant at the University of Pennsylvania and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, of which Quake is co-president. Doctors now rely on ultrasound imaging or the mother's estimate of her last menstrual period to predict the gestational age of a fetus.

Until now, doctors have lacked a reliable way to predict whether pregnancies will end prematurely, and have struggled to accurately predict delivery dates for all types of pregnancies, especially in low-resource settings.

In another cohort of healthy pregnant women, the team found that measurement of nine cfRNA transcripts in maternal blood could predict gestational age with comparable accuracy to ultrasound. Current methods to estimate delivery date generally assume normal development and do not account for premature birth.

Modern medicine and science have come far in understanding the stages of human pregnancy since the days of the ancient Greeks, who nevertheless had quite a bit of knowledge about the different stages of fetal development, according to the researchers. If larger clinical trials reproduce them, this kind of blood test could help save babies who would otherwise die because they were born prematurely, the researchers say.

"The strength of the study is showing there are molecular milestones that are achieved by the fetus and by the placenta", she said.

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. "I bet you they're going to find that the mother's going to respond".

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