US and Danish researchers announced Thursday, June 7, 2018 to have developed an inexpensive blood test that can predict to 80% if a pregnant woman will give birth to a premature baby. Although more research is needed before the test is ready for use, experts say it has the potential to reduce the number of deaths and complications from the 15 million premature births worldwide.
This test can also be used to estimate the date of delivery of the mother “as reliably and cheaply as ultrasound,” says the study published in the journal Science.
The blood test consists of measuring the activity of maternal, placental and fetal genes, evaluating cell-free RNA levels, which are messenger molecules that carry the body’s genetic instructions. “We have found that a handful of genes are highly predictive of women at risk for premature labor,” said Mads Melbye, co-author of the study, Stanford University professor and CEO of the Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen. “I have spent a lot of time over the years working to understand premature birth, which is the first real and significant scientific advance on this issue for a long time,” he said.
One of the other authors in the study, Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering and applied physics at Stanford University, had developed a blood test in 2008 to screen trisomy 21 (Down syndrome), a test today used by more than three million pregnant women each year.
To develop the latest test, the researchers examined blood samples from 31 Danish women to identify genes that give reliable signals about gestational age and the risk of prematurity. If the test came on the market, researchers say it would be fairly simple to use and inexpensive to use in poorer parts of the world.
Defined as a baby arriving at least three weeks in advance, prematurity affects 9% of births in the United States and is the leading cause of death before the age of five for children worldwide. So far, some tests for predicting preterm births were available, but they tended to work only in high-risk women and were accurate to only about 20%, according to the report. Another technique is to use ultrasound, evaluating variations in the attenuation of utrasonore waves. Researchers explained in 2015 that they could use this measure as an indicator of the risk of prematurity.