Until now, there was no way to predict a woman’s chance of giving birth prematurely. A simple blood test taken during the second trimester of a pregnancy can now spot whether a baby will arrive early, 80 per cent of the time, according to researchers from Brigham Young University.

“What’s been missing is a way of assessing risk,” said Steven Graves, who directs the chemistry portion of the research at Brigham Young University. “Our approach has been to look at the naturally occurring molecules that are present in women’s blood to see if we can identify the peptides and small proteins that are at quantitatively different levels in women who go on to have these complications.”

Graves and Sean Esplin at the University of Utah began their search for molecular clues to pregnancy complications in 2002 and now have something to show for it. The paper introduces three new peptide biomarkers that, in combination with a few other proteins, can signal high risk of pre-term birth. And it’s done by looking at just a drop of blood from a mother who is 24 weeks into a pregnancy. In this study, the researchers tested their method on blood samples from 80 women that went full-term and 80 women whose babies came prematurely.

Knowing she is at high risk for pre-term birth is a big advantage for the mother when it comes to decisions about travel and activity level. Esplin also notes that a new hormone treatment can help a baby stay in the womb a little longer.

“With pre-term 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 Esplin. “With just one intervention, we could have a really huge impact.” The method for predicting pre-term birth is patented by BYU and the University of Utah and has been licensed to a company called Sera Prognostics. The company hopes to have a diagnostic test on the market in the first half of 2012.

The study will appear in the May issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and has been posted online by the journal.

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