Maternal blood test may predict birth complications

Tommy’s expert Professor Andy Shennan explains why this new research is an exciting step towards enabling doctors to accurately predict pregnancy complications.

October 2016

An early study led by Queen Mary University of London has found that a protein found in the blood of pregnant women could be used to develop tests to determine the health of their babies.

If successful, this information could help doctors make vital decisions about the need to deliver a baby early.

Professor Andrew Shennan, Clinical Director of Tommy’s Prematurity Research Centre at St Thomas’ Hospital says this research could be a valuable step towards getting important signs about a baby’s health.

‘Normally we measure this by measuring the mother’s tummy or asking her if her baby has been moving properly, but this is not always good enough to pick up a problem. This is where a test like this could be very valuable. Getting clues early on to the health of a baby from a simple test would allow us to spend more time with a mother, doing scans and surveillance.’

Pregnant humans and rodents have high levels of this protein, known as DLK1, in their blood so the team have so far tested in pregnant mice and a small sample of women.

They have found that low levels of DLK1 are a good way to predict poor foetal growth and complications in pregnancy.

The tests could be used to find out more about a mother’s pregnancy without subjecting her to potentially distressing tests. 

Lead researcher Dr Marika Charalambous from Queen Mary University says the findings are important as at the moment there are very few ways of predicting which pregnancies will go wrong.

Not enough information currently exists for doctors to tell which babies are small because they are not getting enough nutrition while in the womb, and who are small simply because of their genes.

'It’s incredibly important to start developing tests that can give an obstetrician much more information on the pregnancy before delivery, so that they can intervene before complications come to crisis point. Measuring DLK1 levels in the mother’s blood could be a reliable and non-invasive way of predicting whether there are likely to be complications, especially those that cause reduced nutrient supply to the baby. In those instances, you really need to get the baby out quickly, so women could opt to have an early elective delivery.'

Further research on humans is needed to determine whether this test can enable doctors to diagnosis the health of an embryo.

These findings are an exciting step in the right direction.

If you are interested in reading more about Tommy's research into premature birth you can see what our Prematurity Research Centre in St Thomas' is working on here.