New blood test could predict premature birth risk

A team of researchers in the US has developed a blood test to predict which mothers may have their babies early, a discovery that could improve infant health.

Preterm births account for 75 percent of infant mortality and medical complications, so researchers hope this new tool can make a big impact in assessing the health of pregnant moms. The earlier physicians detect a mom's risks, the earlier they can intervene to help prolong the pregnancy.

Announced April 18, the simple blood test, developed by researchers from Brigham Young University and the University of Utah and reportedly the first of its kind, screens for three newly identified proteins and six previously discovered proteins.

Women at higher risk of premature birth have higher levels of these proteins in their blood than women who have healthy pregnancies, researchers stated. In a study, the team found more than 80 percent of preterm births could be spotted in advance using the blood test during the second trimester of a pregnancy.

"With preterm birth, if we could even prolong a pregnancy by one or two weeks, we could make a very big impact on the number of babies that survive and make sure that those that survive are healthy," said Dr. Sean Esplin of the research team in a statement. "With just one intervention, we could have a really huge impact."

More work needs to be done on the blood test before women can expect to see it in their physicians' offices, but researchers are "optimistic," they said. They hope the test will be available for trial at the end of this year and widely available by 2012.

Currently there are two other screening tests available to women who are considered at high risk for preterm delivery. One involves a practitioner measuring the length of a woman’s cervix with ultrasound to look for signs that it is changing. If the cervix starts to open or thin out early, preterm delivery is possible, states parenting and pregnancy website BabyCenter.com. Also a fetal firbonectin screening, reserved for women showing signs of preterm labor such as contractions, tests for fetal fibronectin proteins in a sample of a woman's cervical or vaginal secretions, which could indicate higher risk of preterm delivery.

The new blood test has been licensed to a company called Sera Prognostics, and the study was funded by the US-based National Institutes of Health. The research, printed online in advance, will be published in the May issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Learn more about preterm labor and birth: http://www.babycenter.com/0_preterm-labor-and-birth_1055.bc

Watch a video on the study: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esVYbxatSL8

To access the study's abstract: http://www.ajog.org/article/S0002-9378%2810%2901167-1/abstract

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