If you think you’re pregnant or your wife is pregnant. What do you do? Pee on a stick, right?! It’s the first thing most people think of.
Well, a research team at the University of Washington has just been awarded a grant to use that same type of technology to make sure all those new babies are healthy babies.
One in ten pregnancies in Washington state end in preterm birth. That is, the baby comes more than three weeks before the due date. It’s a problem that may be preventable if it can be identified early in the pregnancy.
Dr. Kristina Adams Waldorf is a practicing Obstetrician and Associate Professor at the University of Washington. She’s part of a team that wants to design an easy way to identify women at risk for having a preterm birth.
Their research is focused on low and middle income countries where the rate of preterm birth is the highest and the cost is the greatest.
“So, we need to develop something that’s very inexpensive that can be used by anyone. What comes to mind immediately is a pregnancy test,” says Dr. Waldorf.
The at-home pregnancy tests we use today are amazingly accurate, and Waldorf says the technology already exists to transfer the idea into a test for preterm birth.
What they need to do now is identify the markers most likely to indicate a woman is at risk. Nearly half of preterm births that are very early are caused by infection related to some type of bacteria.
“When you think about these micro-premie babies in the intensive care unit, it’s very likely their preterm birth was caused by infection,” Waldorf says.
They’ll be tracking 300 women from Africa and South Asia over three years, half of whom will likely have a preterm birth and half who probably won’t. They are trying to figure out which types of bacteria are most likely to cause infection.
Then, they will be able to create an easy, at-home test that very likely can be sold over the counter without a prescription. The results would be color-coded.
“In low-income countries, cell phones are very prevalent,” says Waldorf. “So, you could take a picture of this test, send it to a laboratory and get the results back by text message.”
Dr. Waldorf says preterm birth is the leading cause of infant death, worldwide. Each year, nearly 15 million babies are born too early and more than one million of them don’t survive their first month of life.
Children who do survive often suffer long-term issues like developmental delays, breathing problems, and cerebral palsy.
“I really love my patients, and the suffering that occurs when the pregnancy outcome is not what’s expected is deep, it lasts a long time, and it’s part of my job. Doing preterm birth research helps me focus my energies where I think I can make positive outcome,” says Waldorf.
She will be working with scientists at the University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and Stanford University.
“It’s the biggest problem that we have in obstetrics,” says Waldorf. “If we can solve preterm birth, the amount of misery that we would save the world would be enormous.”