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UCalgary researchers part of breakthrough study to predict premature births

Cumming School’s Suzanne Tough and Donna Slater help to develop new blood test to identify women at risk of preterm delivery
July 22, 2016
Donna Slater, left, an associate professor in physiology and pharmacology in the Cumming School of Medicine, and Suzanne Tough, professor in the departments of paediatrics and community health sciences were part of a an international team of researchers who developed a blood test that detects the risk of premature delivery very early in a woman's pregnancy. Photo by Dwayne Brunner, Alberta Innovates Health Solutions

Donna Slater, left, an associate professor in physiology and pharmacology in the Cumming School of Medicine, and Suzanne Tough, professor in the departments of paediatrics and community health sciences were part of a an international team of researchers who developed a blood test that detects the risk of premature delivery very early in a woman's pregnancy. Photo by Dwayne Brunner, Alberta Innovates Health Solutions

An Alberta-led team of researchers headed by the University of Calgary's Suzanne Tough, PhD, has developed a blood test to identify pregnant women at risk of delivering babies prematurely — before the usual 40 weeks of gestation. The study was recently published in the journal PLOS One.

Premature birth remains the main cause of child-related mortality in the developed world. The technique was developed by the Preterm Birth and Healthy Outcomes Team (PreHOT) members Jan Heng, PhD, at Harvard Medical School; Stephen Lye, PhD, at the University of Toronto; and Suzanne Tough, PhD, and Donna Slater, PhD, at the University of Calgary.

Community-based study helped researchers discover markers

The Alberta researchers, from the Cumming School of Medicine’s Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, looked at women who participated in the All Our Babies study, a community-based pregnancy study in Calgary.

The team collected blood from pregnant women at 17 weeks and at 27 weeks. They looked at gene expression, profiling and bioinformatics. Coupled with a patient’s clinical history, they discovered the markers to predict whether or not a woman would deliver prematurely.

The multidisciplinary and international team consisted of clinicians, scientists and biostatisticians.

Screening tool allows early intervention 

“Identifying those women who are at risk of premature birth, as early as 17 weeks in their pregnancy, will help clinicians personalize approaches to prevent preterm birth,” says Tough, a professor in the departments of paediatrics and community health sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine. 

“Developing a reliable screening tool like a blood test could allow us to intervene early in a woman’s pregnancy," says Tough. She is an Alberta Innovates — Health Solutions' (AIHS) Health Scholar who leads the All Our Babies group which is a longitudinal study that aims to understand the influence of early-life factors on child and family health.

Approximately 3,300 pregnant women were recruited beginning in 2008. Extensive demographic, mental health, lifestyle and health service data was obtained from each woman; 1,800 of these women also provided biologic samples during pregnancy allowing for genetic and biomarker analysis.

'Unnecessary and expensive tests can be avoided'

“These are tests to determine if a woman will deliver prematurely,” says Slater, an associate professor in physiology and pharmacology in the Cumming School of Medicine.

“But these tests are much too late in a woman’s pregnancy to do anything about it. The blood test we’ve developed detects risk much earlier in a woman’s pregnancy. It will one day prove most beneficial to women who are at the highest risk to deliver preterm.

"By knowing risk, in advance, unnecessary and expensive tests can be avoided by those women who are most likely to go the full 40 weeks in their pregnancy.”

The study was funded by Alberta Innovates — Health Solutions (AIHS).  

“Preventing premature birth is a key to healthy moms and babies,” says Pamela Valentine, AIHS CEO (Interim) and Transition CEO for Alberta Innovates.

“We congratulate the Preterm Birth and Healthy Outcomes Team on making such a remarkable discovery. This type of collaborative research and innovation will put Alberta at the forefront of understanding premature births and that will benefit women not only in Alberta but around the world.”