A new blood test can predict whether women having signs of early labour will go on to give birth too soon, according to an international research team.
The research, published in the international journal PLOS ONE, found the blood test was able to predict premature birth in 70 per cent of cases.
Co-author Associate Professor Craig Pennell, from UWA's School of Women's and Infants' Health, said preterm birth (before 37 weeks) occurred in up to 11 per cent of pregnancies worldwide and was the main cause of death and disease in unborn babies in the developed world.
The research team included The University of Western Australia, the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Canada and the Institute for Infocomm Research, Agency for Science, Technology and Research in Singapore.
The researchers studied 150 women between 24 and 36 weeks gestation who were admitted to King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women in Perth with threatened preterm labour and found that a blood test was able to distinguish between true and false labour in 70 per cent of the women.
"About five per cent of women with signs of early labour give birth within 10 days but until now there hasn't been a reliable test to determine whether women having early contractions will go on to deliver their babies early," Professor Pennell said.
The blood test was based on screening for genetic signs linked to the start of labour.
"What we've found is that markers in the blood of women in threatened preterm labour are able to show whether these women will give birth within 48 hours," he said.
"Although medical advances have increased the survival rates of premature babies, they remain vulnerable to respiratory disorders, cognitive impairment, blindness and deafness. In later life, they may also face complications such as motor and sensory impairment, learning difficulties and behavioural issues. This can lead to an immediate and long-term emotional and financial burden on families, communities and the health care system."
The research teams in both Perth and Toronto are planning to further evaluate this test in women who present with contractions preterm. They hope it will be more widely available within five years.