Preterm births—when the baby is born fewer than 37 weeks gestational age—are very common. Experts estimate one in ten babies in the United States is born preterm. Suppose there was a way to predict which pregnant mothers are most at risk for giving birth prematurely. In that case, they could receive personalized care and more intensive clinical monitoring to improve outcomes for themselves and their babies.
Thanks to new research, a simple blood test may offer a solution.
A study by researchers at Michigan State University screened 157 healthy expectant mothers, all of which had not previously given birth to preterm babies. Fifty-one of these participants ended up having a preterm birth.
Amidst the plethora of genes being expressed before, during, and after birth, there were two that stood out to the researchers: CRY2 and CLOCK. These genes are part of a group known to influence cell circadian rhythms, in-built time-keeping systems within cells. The team found that mothers with lower CRY2 and CLOCK mRNA levels had an elevated risk of preterm birth. This finding implies that these two genes may be key factors that dictate when labor should commence.
In the future, the researchers propose that a blood test to screen for CRY2 and CLOCK mRNA levels at the 20-week prenatal appointment could help physicians identify mothers most at risk of preterm delivery.
“If we could measure women’s mRNA levels and tell them for their second or third pregnancies, that they aren’t at risk for a preterm birth because their levels are higher (in a normal/healthy range), that would be such a comfort to the mothers who previously had a preterm birth,” said study lead Hanne Hoffmann.