One in ten women deliver their babies prematurely, often causing a slew of health problems for the baby. The reasons why a woman goes into labor early are pretty much still a mystery. But now, a simple blood test that predicts premature birth in as much as 80% of pregnant women could soon hit the market.
Researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah identified three new peptide biomarkers that can forecast the likelihood of preterm birth when analyzed with other proteins. Peptides are short proteins that are composed of amino acids, as are ordinary proteins.
The researchers collected blood from 80 women who delivered prematurely and 80 who had full-term babies. As TIME reports:
They found dramatically lower levels of the biomarkers in the women who delivered prematurely. Women were tested at 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy. At 24 weeks, women who displayed lower peptide levels went on to have labor symptoms like contractions and dilation early, eight weeks later; when tested at 28 weeks, decreased levels predicted labor symptoms four weeks later. For women 28 weeks along, the peptides alone identified 65% of those who went on to deliver early; when combined with other proteins, the rate rose to 87%.
Even though there were no signs or symptoms of premature labor – the woman felt and looked fine – the closer she was to delivering prematurely, the more dramatic the reductions in her biomarkers.
Being able to predict preterm birth is a game-changer, obviously. Both universities patented the method they used to detect the peptides and have already licensed it to a company that plans to roll out tests physicians can use within one year.
Pregnant patients can volunteer for the blood draw for free, initially, because testing is mandated by the FDA to confirm it works. And it’s not even an extra needle to deal with. The blood draw could be combined with the sample taken to screen for gestational diabetes between 26 to 28 weeks of pregnancy. “Currently there are no tests to indicate a woman is at risk for preterm birth. Right now, a doctor is required to bring a woman in every few weeks to be examined in his office in an effort to catch changes that might be an indication of preterm labor” says Steven Graves, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Brigham Young University who directed the research.
Knowing that a woman is at high risk of premature birth won’t necessarily prevent it. But an at-risk woman can take precautions, such as limiting activity or going on bed rest. There are also drugs that can delay preterm labor in some women.
“The process by which labor begins has been shrouded in mystery,” says Michael Katz, professor emeritus of pediatrics at Columbia University. “The more of these discoveries we learn about, the more we will be able to make sense of these predictions. Eventually, all of this will fall into place.”