A Simple New 3-Minute Test Could Cut Premature Births in Half and Save More Babies

Bioethics   |   Micaiah Bilger   |   Jun 11, 2018   |   3:39PM   |   Washington, DC

Medical research teams across the world are working on new ways to help protect unborn babies from premature birth.

About 15 million premature babies are born every year across the world, according to the World Health Organization. Complications are common, and about 1.1 million premature babies die every year.

But a new 3-minute test being developed by British researchers provides hope for preventing premature birth.

Scientists at the Imperial College London and Genesis Research Trust said treatable infections lead to about 30,000 premature births every year, The Mirror reports. To prevent these and save lives, they hope to make an inexpensive, non-invasive test available to pregnant mothers across the world.

The test is not available yet, but scientists said they hope it will be soon. Ideally, the mother would be tested at 12 weeks and 20 weeks of pregnancy, according to IOL.

“At this stage we’re in early development with the test but we’re really excited about the potential it holds,” said lead researcher Dr David MacIntyre.

The test involves taking a sample of cells from the mother’s vagina and using a small machine to analyzes the sample for harmful bacteria. Scientists said the machine produces results within 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, researchers in the United States recently announced two new blood tests that also could help detect if a baby is at risk of premature birth, Live Science reports. The results were published in the journal “Science” in June.

Here’s more from the report:

To perform the tests, scientists took blood samples from pregnant women and then analyzed free-floating genetic material known as RNA within each sample. This RNA comes not just from the mother but also the fetus and placenta and can provide insight on fetal development. In fact, these fragments of RNA can reveal which genes are switched on, indicating which stage of maturation the fetus has reached.

In effect, these noninvasive tests provide a way of “eavesdropping on a conversation” between the mother, the fetus and the placenta, without disturbing the pregnancy, study co-researcher Dr. David K. Stevenson, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University in California, said in a statement.

“With further study, we might be able to identify specific genes and gene pathways that could reveal some of the underlying causes of preterm birth, and suggest potential targets for interventions to prevent it,” Stevenson said.

Thanks to modern medical advances, premature babies are surviving at greater rates than ever before all across the world.

Late last year, the journal Pediatrics highlighted a baby girl in the United States who survived after being born 21 weeks and four days after conception. The girl, who now is 3, is believed to be the youngest premature baby to survive.

A Duke University study published in 2017 reported that babies born at just 23 weeks gestation are surviving outside the womb at a greater rate than ever before. Researchers examined 4,500 babies between 2000 and 2011 and found a “small but significant drop in fatalities for babies born between 23 and 37 weeks gestation,” as well as a decrease in premature babies manifesting neurophysiological problems, the Daily Mail reported.

These tiny babies’ success stories are prompting some people to rethink abortion laws that allow unborn babies to be aborted up to 24 weeks or even later in pregnancy.