A New Blood Test May (Finally) be Able to Predict Premature Birth

Stephan Quake, Ph.D.Premature birth is the most serious health threat facing moms and babies. It cuts across ethnic, racial and socio-economic lines and affects 15 million babies and their moms of all ages worldwide every year. If science could tell us which women were going to deliver prematurely, that knowledge would create the opportunity to develop interventions specifically targeted to those women. But no one seems to be able to predict which women will deliver their babies early and which will carry their babies to term.

Until now, that is.

New research funded in part by March of Dimes shows that a simple blood test identifiying biomarkers in the mother’s blood may be a cost-effective and accurate predictor of which pregnancies will end prematurely. In addition, the same test is proving to be an accurate predictor of gestational age—at least as accurate as an ultrasound, the only such predictor currently available—but at a lower cost.

Team science at its finest

Published in the June 8 issue of the respected journal, Science, this work was led by Stephen Quake, Ph.D., a professor of bioengineering and of applied physics at Stanford and an investigator at the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Stanford University. He shares senior authorship with Mads Melbye, M.D., visiting professor of medicine. Lead authors on the study are Thuy Ngo, Ph.D., a former Stanford postdoctoral scholar and Stanford graduate student Mira Moufarrej. But the actual collaboration that brought about these remarkable results spanned a worldwide group of researchers and scientists.

“This work is the result of a fantastic collaboration between researchers around the world,” said Quake, who is also the Lee Otterson Professor in the Stanford’s School of Engineering. “We have worked closely with the team at the Stanford March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center, and the Center at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as scientists in Denmark and Alabama. It’s really team science at its finest.”

The test Professor Quake and his team devised is the result of years of work from different quarters of the scientific community studying gestational age and represents one of the first real scientific breakthroughs in our ability to predict premature birth. By assessing maternal blood levels of cell-free RNA—the messenger molecules that carry the body’s genetic instruction to its protein-making factories—and measuring the activity of maternal, placental and fetal genes in the samples, the team was able to identify which genes gave reliable signals about gestational age and prematurity risk. The next step is to validate these results in much larger studies.

Predicting birth without disrupting it Quake Lab, Stanford University.

David K. Stevenson, M.D., principal investigator of the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center--Stanford University, likened the blood test approach to “eavesdropping on a conversation” between the mother, the fetus and the placenta, without disturbing the pregnancy. “With further study,” he added, “we might be able to identify specific genes and gene pathways that could reveal some of the underlying causes of premature birth and suggest potential targets for interventions to prevent it.”

This cutting-edge research is but one example of the many successes March of Dimes is investing in to help improve the health of moms and babies around the world. Through the work of our more than 200 researchers, scientists, doctors and clinicians, and with your help, we’re fighting every day to end prematurity and give every baby the best possible start.