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.
While Tommy’s concentrate most of our research on stillbirth, miscarriage and premature birth, we know that work is needed in many other areas to make sure as many babies as possible are born alive and well.
Tommy’s are taking advantage of technology to develop new ways of making sure as many babies as possible are born healthy, from new scanning techniques to training simulators for amniocentesis.
Tommy’s understand pregnancy complications cause far more than just physical harm. We want to understand the best way to support women’s mental health both during pregnancy and following loss.
Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy, or obstetric cholestasis, is the most common liver disease affecting women during pregnancy.
Around 20% of pregnant women in the UK are now obese . Tommy’s research is helping women of any weight to have healthy pregnancies.
Pre-eclampsia is a pregnancy condition that can lead to serious complications for mother and baby if left untreated. Tommy’s think that prevention is better than cure – so we’re funding research to figure out why it happens and how we can stop it.
We empower women by giving them the high quality information they need during pregnancy to make pregnancy safer and a whole new generation healthier.
Tommy’s exists to save babies’ lives. That’s why we give over £1.5 million every year to our four research centres to carry out vital work on preventing pregnancy loss.
This unique Preterm Surveillance Clinic – funded by Tommy's as part of our research in St Thomas' Hospital, London, has won an NHS Innovation Challenge Prize, for its success in reducing the number of premature births in South East London.
Tommy’s prematurity research centre in London is based at St Thomas’ Hospital, where the charity first began. Opened in 1995, it is the first Maternal and Fetal Research Unit in the UK.
Around 60,000 babies are born prematurely each year in the UK. These babies are vulnerable – they are born before they have grown to cope with the outside world. Tommy’s is saving lives by researching how we can prevent premature births by finding those at risk early on.
A preterm birth is one that happens before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Globally, more than 1 in 10 pregnancies will end in preterm birth.