Blood test may predict premature birth, say researchers

Henrietta Strickland
June 9, 2018

A new blood test could flag pregnant women at risk of giving birth prematurely, giving healthcare providers a vital insight into potential risks to both parent and child.

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 study to predict women's due dates included expectant mothers in Denmark who submitted a blood sample each week throughout their pregnancies. Added bonus: It's a "noninvasive" method that's cheaper than an ultrasound.

Stevenson, M.D., principal investigator at the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Stanford University, describes the PCR-based tests, which can be carried out on a single blood sample, as effectively "eavesdropping on a conversation" among the mother, the fetus, and the placenta. That's similar to the accuracy rate of ultrasounds during the first trimester, the researchers said. Ultrasound also requires expensive equipment and trained technicians, which are unavailable in much of the developing world.

Though his daughter is now 16 and doing well, the preemie experience stuck with the dad, who hopes the tests could help understand and reduce preterm births. By applying their model, the researchers correctly guessed whether the women would deliver preterm more than 75 percent of the time, according to the paper published in the journal Science.

The test detected the variations in RNA in a pregnant woman's blood and estimated due dates within two weeks in almost half the cases. 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. "It tells us a lot about human development in normal pregnancy". "To date, no test on the market can reliably predict which pregnant moms will go on to preterm labor".

In a study of 38 women at risk of preterm delivery, RNA markers were also identified.

"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.

The results are preliminary and the researchers still have to validate the new tests with larger groups of pregnant women before they're ready for use, but damn is this exciting.

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

Scientists from the Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen, the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the University of Alabama-Birmingham also contributed to the study.

"RNA is what's happening in the cells at any given moment", said Dr. Quake, co-president of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, which funded the study along with others.

The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub has submitted a patent application for the new technology.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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