The link between cell-free fetal DNA and premature birth

Women who give birth early have higher levels of cell-free fetal DNA in their blood than women who give birth at full term. Our researchers found that this DNA does not cause premature birth or inflammation, and instead think that the rise in cell-free fetal DNA is a reaction to premature birth.
  • Author's list

    Dr Sara Van Boeckel, Dr Sarah Stock, Professor Jane Norman

    Start date: June 2016
    End date: May 2020

  • Research centre

  • Research status

    Completed projects

Why do we need this research?

During pregnancy, small fragments of the baby’s DNA are released from the placenta into the mother’s blood. This DNA – known as cell-free fetal DNA – can be picked up using a simple blood test. By looking at cell-free fetal DNA in blood samples taken in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, it is possible to find out the sex of the baby and to diagnose genetic diseases.

Recent studies have shown that women who give birth early have higher levels of cell-free fetal DNA than women who give birth at full term. However, we don’t understand why this is the case.

What happened in this project?

Our researchers performed a series of studies to investigate the link between cell-free fetal DNA and premature birth. In particular, the team were looking at the role of cell-free fetal DNA in inflammation, as inflammation is thought to be the cause of over 70% of early births.

Using placenta samples donated after birth, our researchers found that inflammation in the placenta did not result in an increase in the production of cell-free fetal DNA. Also, using blood samples donated by pregnant women, the team found that cell-free fetal DNA does not cause inflammation. Finally, our researchers found that cell-free fetal DNA does not cause premature birth when injected into the wombs of pregnant mice.

What difference will this project make?

An understanding of the mechanisms that lead to premature birth is crucial if we are to develop new treatments to prevent it. This research has shown that cell-free fetal DNA does not appear to cause inflammation or premature birth. It is more likely that premature birth is somehow causing a rise in cell-free fetal DNA.

Get our research updates

Tommy's funds research across the UK investigating the reasons for pregnancy complications and loss. If you're interested in being kept updated about our research and news from Tommy's, click here.