A research team from Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland in New Zealand has received a fellowship grant to develop a blood test to predict premature birth.

Each year, more than 15 million babies are born preterm worldwide.

Compared to babies born at term, a majority of preterm births have a higher risk of complications related to growth, learning and adult diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

Furthermore, approximately 60% of preterm births occur unexpectedly, usually in women with no previous history or warning.

To address this, the Liggins Institute team is working with the university’s medical and health sciences faculty to create a blood-based test that can be carried out mid-pregnancy.

The team discovered a molecular fingerprint in blood samples from women who were 20 weeks pregnant and went on to have preterm babies.

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According to researchers, the potential biomarker was obtained from the analysis of micro-RNA (miRNA) molecules required for the regulation of gene expression.

MiRNAs are associated with the development of and protection from various diseases.

Findings from recent studies showed that miRNAs could act as biomarkers for osteoporosis, cancer and pre-eclampsia, a pregnancy complication.

It was observed that the identified molecular fingerprint was not present in blood samples of women at the same pregnancy stage who delivered at term.

Researchers intend to use the funding to develop and evaluate the test in cohorts across New Zealand, Australia and Ireland.

Liggins Institute professor Mark Vickers said: “If this test proves effective, it could potentially lead to much better outcomes for the babies and their mothers, both in the short and long term.

“It could enable the targeting of existing and future therapies to delay or even prevent preterm birth. The platform could also be used to detect other pregnancy complications, such as gestational diabetes.”

Vickers received the $230,000 fellowship grant from the Royal Society Te Apārangi.