PROVO — Each year, 15 million babies are born preterm — before they’ve had a chance to fully develop inside their mother’s womb. Of those 15 million, nearly 1 million die due to related complications, making preterm birth the leading cause of death for children 5 and under.
Yet, with all the advancements made in medicine, the first symptoms of preterm birth are the contractions. According to BYU chemistry professor Adam Woolley, a pregnant woman cannot know if she will give birth early until she goes into labor.
“At that point, you’re managing the outcome instead of trying to prepare for it,” Woolley said.
To help women prevent rather than simply treat preterm birth, Woolley and BYU chemistry Ph.D. student Mukul Sonker have created a small chip (an integrated microfluidic device) that will predict with 90 percent accuracy a woman’s risk for preterm birth.
“It’s like we’re shrinking a whole laboratory and fitting it into one small microchip,” Sonker said in a news release. Sonker and Woolley co-authored the study, which was recently published in Electrophoresis and funded in part by the National Institutes of Health.
Humans generally have a wide variety of molecules circulating their blood and, when a woman is pregnant, the distribution of those molecules changes. BYU professor Steven Graves and University of Utah professor M. Sean Esplin discovered that some of these molecules change in response to risk for preterm birth.
“It’s pretty fascinating because the blood samples are taken about a month before any contractions actually occurred, so apparently the body knows there’s a problem weeks before it actually happens,” Woolley said. “What we’re interested in doing in my lab is to develop a miniaturized, simplified system that would allow us to take just a small amount of blood ... early in the third trimester — maybe late in the second trimester — and then run a test and find out whether or not the woman who’s pregnant is at risk for preterm delivery.”
With the microchip, doctor’s would be able to take a finger-prick’s worth of blood and measure a panel of nine identified biomarkers that would signal a woman’s risk for preterm birth. Currently, doctors generally only keep tabs on pregnant women if they have any other clear risk factors that would cause them to be susceptible to preterm birth.
If a woman’s blood sample returns a risk for preterm birth, there are several preventative measures doctors can take to ensure the baby develops quickly and safely.
“One of the last things to develop in an infant are the lungs,” Woolley said. “So if they know there’s a potential risk, they can administer steroids, which allows the lungs to develop a little faster so the baby has a better chance of thriving once she’s born.”
Woolley, whose wife almost gave birth to their oldest child early in her third trimester, knows there is still work to do to make the microchip a viable option for women. Woolley, Sonker and BYU post-docs Radim Knob and Vishal Sahore are now concentrating on fully developing the chip and hope it’s used on a much wider scale within the next decade.
Annual costs of preterm birth in the U.S. are close to $30 billion, so the device has the potential to not only save lives but to save billions of dollars as well.
“There’s a huge financial cost that’s associated with preterm birth, but there’s also a human cost,” Wooley said. “Being able for these babies to be born and thrive in good health, that’s invaluable.”
Contributing: Dave Cawley