Blood test for pregnant women predicts premature birth, says Stanford-led research

Premature birth test being trialled

Approximations of gestational age are typically based on ultrasound imaging and/or the patient's estimate of her last menstrual period, but neither method is necessarily ideal. "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". Provisional data for 2017 from the National Center for Health Statistics show that the preterm birth rate in the US has reached 9.93%, up from 9.86% in 2016, the third consecutive annual increase after steady declines over the previous seven years.

So now, new research funded by the United States 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.

Researchers, led by Professor Steven Kueik of Stanford University, California, who published the journal Science, found a new method that predicts the activity of certain maternal and fetal genes as biomarkers. In general, there is a difficulty in predicting precisely the date of all births.

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. The scientists found that levels of cell-free RNA from seven genes from the mother and the placenta could predict which pregnancies would end early.

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

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"More research is needed to confirm the findings before it can be considered in clinical settings". He said the test could eventually provide a low-priced method of gauging the gestational age of a developing fetus. It's also similarly precise with the new blood test predicting the gestational age within two weeks 45 percent of the time compared to ultrasound's 48 percent accuracy.

The gestational-age test was developed by studying a cohort of 31 Danish women who gave blood weekly throughout their pregnancies. Researchers then identified set of cfRNA transcripts that could be used to classify women that would deliver up to two months ahead of labor.

For the study, the team used blood samples collected during pregnancy to identify which genes gave reliable signals about gestational age and prematurity risk. These women each gave one blood sample during the second or third trimester of their pregnancies.

A New York Times report points out that 15 million babies are born prematurely in a year globally and this blood test can potentially save their lives. The New York Times reported that the research, which is still in preliminary stages, detects changes in RNA in a pregnant woman's blood and can estimate due dates within 2 weeks in almost half the cases.

They acknowledge that their studies will need verifiying in much larger, ethnically diverse cohorts, including women who aren't already known to be at risk of preterm birth.

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