New home testing kit could cut premature birth rate

An over-the-counter test to detect an infection that induces early labour could save thousands of babies and millions of pounds
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Pregnant women may soon be able to buy a simple testing kit to determine if they are likely to give birth prematurely, a product that could prevent thousands of early births and save the NHS millions.

Pregnant women may soon be able to buy a simple testing kit to determine if they are likely to give birth prematurely, a product that could prevent thousands of early births and save the NHS millions.

The spot-colour test similar to a home pregnancy test, which detects a treatable infection that often leads to premature births, would enable mothers to seek medical advice earlier, giving them a better chance of carrying their babies to term.

The over-the-counter test is being developed by scientists at Bristol University who are seeking to reduce the huge financial and human costs of babies being born too soon.

Britain has the highest rate of premature births in Europe - about 7 per cent of the 670,000 births a year, or 47,000 babies, are born at least three weeks before they are due. About 2 per cent of those are extremely pre-term, born at least eight weeks early, and need intensive care because of the serious complications associated with early birth.

Prematurity is the highest cause of death in newborn babies, and one in 10 premature babies develops a permanent disability such as cerebral palsy, blindness or chronic lung disease. Premature children also show long-term intellectual and behavioural problems, recent research has shown.

The test is being developed by Peter Soothill, professor of maternal and fetal medicine and the head of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Bristol, whose paper on the science behind the test will be published the journal Clinical Microbiology later this month.

His team - which is funded by Tommy's Campaign, a charity that looks for answers to problem pregnancies and promotes healthy pregnancy - has developed a colour-change test that indicates the presence of an enzyme called Sialidaise.

Around 70 per cent of premature births are caused by infection, and women with Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) have high levels of this enzyme, Professor Soothill said. BV is an infection linked to premature delivery and miscarriage. The bacteria gradually move from the vagina to the uterus, infecting the placenta and eventually the baby, which causes the body to go into pre-term labour. The aim of the test is to detect the potential for infection early to enable it to be treated.

"We are very excited about this as it gives women the chance to test themselves to find out whether or not they are at high risk of premature birth," Professor Soothill said. "We have developed a cheap and simple colour-change test to detect the enzyme."

The team is looking at different ways of removing the bacteria and preventing the infection spreading.

Antibiotics could be used to treat the infection; a suture could be put in the cervix to stop the bacteria moving to the uterus; or the bacteria could be tackled in situ. "One of the ideas for the future is to use an 'enzyme inhibiting tampon' which will block the infection exactly where it is needed," Professor Soothill said.

Jane Brewin, the chief executive of Tommy's Campaign, which, with Boots chemist has launched a National Pregnancy week this week, said: "We are delighted to see good progress in this work to identify mums at risk of early labour."

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