Fetal DNA and preterm labour

Sara Van Boeckel, Heather MacPherson, Jane Norman, Sarah Stock

Our researchers have been investigating the link between fetal DNA and preterm labour.

During pregnancy, the baby’s DNA is released from the placenta into the mother’s blood. 

This DNA – known as cell-free fetal DNA (cffDNA) – can be picked up in the mother’s blood using a simple blood test. Tests in the second and third trimester can use the baby’s DNA to find out the sex of the baby, as well as to diagnose genetic diseases.

Recent studies have shown that women who give birth early have higher levels of cell-free DNA than women who give birth at term. 

When testing this on pregnant mice, the results indicated that fetal DNA could cause inflammation in the mother’s body followed by preterm birth or miscarriage. We wanted to find out more. 

Our researchers have performed a series of studies to investigate the link between cell-free fetal DNA and preterm birth. They found that cffDNA alone does not cause an inflammatory response in women, and our studies on mice have shown that cffDNA does not cause preterm birth. 

During these experiments we found exciting new evidence of the way microbial DNA causes inflammation in pregnant and non-pregnant women. We are now looking to see if DNA signalling is altered in pregnancy. 

We hope that this will help us understand why pregnant women are more susceptible to infections that can lead to preterm birth.


We are doing further research to identify whether these mechanisms have potential to be used to help prevent infection in pregnancy.



Thanks for your interest in our research

Tommy's funds research across the UK investigating the reasons for pregnancy complications and loss. Maternal and fetal research is underfunded and we need your support to continue. There are many small and large ways you can support us, find out more here.


This research is funded by Tommy's and takes place in a Tommy's centre.

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