Blood test may identify pregnant women at risk of premature birth

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"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", Stevenson adds.

Recent research from the U.S. 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.

According to the researchers, 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.

The innovation could "alert us to which women are at risk so they can be appropriately cared for", Stanford professor of bioengineering Stephen Quake, a senior author on the paper, said in a statement.

And it is hard to accurately predict delivery dates, she said.

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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Prof Basky Thilaganathan, a Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists spokesman, said: "Complications from premature birth are a leading cause of infant mortality and affect 7-8% of all births in the UK". Specifically, the team targeted the RNA in the mother's blood. The study was led by Stephen Quake of Stanford University, who said that the test could provide a low-priced method of estimating a fetus' gestational age.

"Our test was able to predict 80.3% of women who went on to have any preterm birth, at 15 to 20 weeks gestation", Laura Jelliffe-Pawlowski, an associate professor and director of Precision Health and Discovery at the University of California, San Francisco's Preterm Birth Initiative and coauthor of the study, tells CNN. The findings indicated that cfRNA corresponding to a set of placental genes might provide an accurate estimate of fetal development and gestational age throughout pregnancy.

The research team conducted a pilot study on 31 healthy pregnant women, using 21 of them to create a statistical model based on nine transcripts of RNA from the mother's immune system, the infant's liver, and the placenta.

In a related study with 38 women with elevated risk of delivering preterm, researchers found seven nucleic acids that accurately identified women who went into labor up to two months early. The women all had full-term pregnancies.

Next, they're planning to validate the test in larger groups of women. "They can be applied across the globe as a complement to or substitute for ultrasound, which can be expensive and inaccurate during the second and third trimester...." Like a message in a bottle, the genes give reliable signals about fetal growth, gestational age and prematurity risk. 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.