Researchers hope to predict premature births with at-home test

SEATTLE -- A device as simple as a home pregnancy test could soon be used to tell expecting mothers around the world if they are at risk of delivering their baby early.

More than 15 million babies are born prematurely around the world every year, including 10,000 in Washington state, reports Seattle Children's Hospital. Of those, 1 million do not survive longer than one month, and millions more suffer long-term health effects.

University of Washington researchers are investigating one of the primary causes of preterm births - bacterial infections. With a $1.4 million grant from Seattle Children's Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth, they will try to identify which vaginal bacterial infections are associated with preterm births and develop a test to identify those bacteria among pregnant women.

Dr. Kristina Waldorf, a lead researcher on the project, said about half of early preterm births can be linked to infection or inflammation. She explained changes in vaginal bacteria can disrupt the immune system and allow bacteria to invade amniotic fluid and the fetus, leading to preterm labor.

To discover which bacteria are causing premature births, Waldorf and her partner, Dr. David Eschenbach, will study the vaginal fluid of women who have healthy pregnancies as well as those delivering preterm in Africa and South Asia.

"We are hoping to discover certain signatures in the microbiome that would predict a preterm birth well in advance and allow for treatment to prevent it," she said.

Once the bacteria are identified, Waldorf hopes to develop a test similar to a home pregnancy test that will allow women to determine whether they are infected with any of these bacteria. Expecting mothers would apply vaginal fluid to a stick or strip and then send a photo of the result to a laboratory via text message.

"We want to identify these women very early in their pregnancies and put them on therapy early on to prevent preterm labor," Waldorf said.

The test will be designed to be affordable and convenient for women in less-developed parts of the world. Waldorf said bacteria-related preterm labors are far more common in South Asia and Africa but do occur in the United States. One infection - bacteria vaginosis - infects approximately 50 percent of African women, while 12 to 20 percent of women are infected in the United States.

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