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Preterm blood-test a step closer with $NZ230k boost

A Liggins Institute researcher has received a $NZ230,000 boost to develop a mid-pregnancy blood test to predict premature birth.

The research could revolutionise the care of pregnant women at risk of giving birth too early (before 37 weeks pregnancy), enabling the targeting of interventions to delay or even prevent preterm birth.

Globally, more than one in ten babies are born preterm, with more than 15 million preterm births annually.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the rate is around eight percent (14.6 percent among Māori), or some 5000 babies every year. The vast majority survive, but they carry a greater risk of problems with growth, learning, and adult diseases such as obesity and diabetes than babies born at term.

Preterm birth is still the leading cause of child death in almost all high-income and middle-income countries.

One challenge is that about 60 percent of preterm births occur spontaneously, often in women with no prior history or warning. Currently, there is no way of reliably predicting whether an individual woman will go into labour prematurely.

That may be about to change.

A team of researchers at the University of Auckland-based Liggins Institute and the University’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences have identified a unique molecular ‘fingerprint’ in blood taken from women at 20 weeks of pregnancy who all went on to have their babies early (at 28-32 weeks). The fingerprint was absent from blood taken from women at the same stage in pregnancy who went on to deliver at term.

Now Professor Mark Vickers from the Institute has received a fellowship from the Royal Society Te Apārangi worth at least $230,000 over two years to develop and independently validate (check) the test in cohorts across New Zealand, Australia and Ireland.

The potential biomarker revealed in the pilot study was derived from micro-RNA (miRNA) analysis. MiRNAs are small non-coding RNA molecules that play key roles in the regulation of gene expression. MiRNAs are also known to be involved in the development of, and protection from, a range of diseases. Recent studies in this fast-emerging field have highlighted the potential for miRNAs as biomarkers for osteoporosis, cancer and the pregnancy complication pre-eclampsia.

The research team lead by Professor Vickers used state-of-the-art digital technology called NanoString, which counts the number of individual miRNA molecules present in a maternal blood sample. Much more sensitive and faster than other available methods, it demonstrates recent rapid advances in technology and medicine.

“If this test proves effective, it could potentially lead to much better outcomes for the babies and their mothers, both in the short and long term,” says Professor Vickers. “It could enable the targeting of existing and future therapies to delay or even prevent preterm birth. The platform could also be used to detect other pregnancy complications, such as gestational diabetes.”

Professor Vickers is one of only four recipients of a James Cook Research Fellowship this year, along with two others from the University of Auckland (Professor Alexei Drummond in the Faculty of Science, and Associate Professor Andrew Taberner in the Auckland Bioengineering Institute).

The fellowships are awarded to researchers who have achieved national and international recognition in their field.

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