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New hope for preventing premature birth

Predicting premature birth via a simple blood test could save thousands of lives globally. Research is being led by Professors Mark Vickers and Lesley McCowan at The University of Auckland who say that the 10% of babies born prematurely will often struggle with multiple risks to their health and ability to thrive.

Prof Vickers says, "A reliable blood test for accurate prediction of spontaneous pre-term birth risk would give us the chance to improve care and treat the mother and baby with therapies to prevent it. We hope this results in improved outcomes for both infant and mother."

The researchers are working to identify micro RNAs in blood samples that are associated with premature birth. Micro RNAs are a class of molecules that play a multitude of roles in the regulation of gene expression and so can act in development of diseases and disorders, or be harnessed as a tool to protect against them.

Prof Vickers says, "Leveraging the outcome of this work has potential for major impact on clinical practice. We're helping to establish a blood test to define the key changes in maternal circulating micro RNA profiles during the early pregnancy of expectant mothers who go on to have a premature birth but previously would not have been identified as 'high risk'.

"If our findings are now confirmed in larger validation studies, those mothers and babies identified as being at high risk may then be managed differently. The economic and societal burden of preterm birth is significant. Women identified to be at lower risk may also have their management adjusted and unnecessary interventions reduced."

This important work is supported in part by the Auckland Harbourside Rotary Club.

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