Behind the Headlines: Can blood test predict preterm birth?

A blood test to predict mothers' risk of 'premature' birth has been developed by US scientists, according to newspapers.

Preterm birth is an important cause of perinatal mortality (Photograph: SPL)
Preterm birth is an important cause of perinatal mortality (Photograph: SPL)

The reports claimed the test could detect eight in 10 premature births. Mothers found to be at risk could then change their lifestyle to reduce the risk.

What did the scientists develop?
Although the US study refers to 'premature' birth, researchers led by Dr Sean Esplin of the University of Utah in fact tried to identify biomarkers to predict the chance of a preterm birth (before 37 weeks).

Preterm birth remains the primary cause of perinatal morbidity and death in the US.

In the study, researchers took blood samples from 80 pregnant women at 24 weeks and a further 80 pregnant women at 28 weeks. Half went on to have preterm births; the others had uncomplicated pregnancies.

Researchers found levels of three peptides were reduced in women who had a preterm birth. Of these, the peptide that best identified women at risk correctly predicted 65% of preterm births.

When the three peptides were used in conjunction with six established biomarkers, this predictive power rose to 86.5%.

How significant are the results?
The Daily Mail reported Dr Esplin as saying: 'If we could prolong a pregnancy by one or two weeks, we could make a very big impact on the number of babies that survive.'

Professor Ronald Lamont, spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, told GP the results were 'exciting', but one of many strands of work in this area: 'This won't be the magic test that identifies all women at risk. Research has been going on for a long time. There is no one cause of preterm labour, so there is no one predictive test.'

He pointed out that although the new test could spot more women who were not at risk than some existing tests, it identified fewer at-risk women than many existing tests.

Although the addition of other biomarkers improved this test, Professor Lamont said it needed to be much nearer 100% sensitive to be useful.

One newspaper had reported that the test would go on sale in the US next year and 'could be available soon' in the UK.

Professor Lamont said NICE would want to assess any such test, but he believed it would wait for a more comprehensive screening tool to emerge. 'This won't be available in the UK (on the NHS) any time soon,' he said.

Informing patients
  • US researchers have developed a simple blood test that can predict 80 per cent of preterm births and could help reduce deaths among preterm babies.
  • A UK expert said the test was not sensitive enough and was unlikely to be funded by the NHS yet.

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