The blood biomarkers could also estimate gestational age or delivery date with comparable accuracy to ultrasound, but possibly at lower cost, according to the study funded by March of Dimes, a New York-based nonprofit organization that works to improve the health of mothers and babies.
These women each gave a blood sample during the second or third trimester of their pregnancies.
"For the most part, we can't tell who is at risk for prematurity despite all the marvels of modern medicine", he wrote in an email. The genes that give information about a woman's due date are different from those that predict prematurity, the scientists noted.
"In the case of the preterm prediction, "[it's] mostly maternal genes" producing the relevant RNA, rather than the placenta-based transcripts from the due-date predictor, says Stanford University graduate student Mira Moufarrej, a lead author of the study, in a press release.
Not knowing the exact number of weeks of a pregnancy means doctors may think a baby is overdue when it's not - and that can lead to unnecessary induction of labor, C-sections, extended postnatal care and increased medical expenses.
"Noninvasive blood tests for fetal development predict gestational age and preterm delivery", by Thuy T.M. Ngo et al., appears in the June 8 issue of Science. The test was tried in fewer than 100 women. "The first step in decreasing our premature births is identifying who is most at risk".
The tests measure the activity of maternal, placental and foetal genes by assessing maternal blood levels of cell-free RNA, tiny bits of the messenger molecule that carry the body's genetic instructions to its protein-making factories.
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The Stanford team read these signals not just from the mom's cells but also from the fetal cells that flow into the mother's blood.
For the study, the team used blood samples collected during pregnancy to identify which genes gave reliable signals about gestational age and prematurity risk. The New York Times reported that the research, which is still in preliminary stages, detects changes in RNA in a pregnant woman's blood and can estimate due dates within 2 weeks in almost half the cases.
In two separate cohorts of women, all at elevated risk of delivering preterm, the research team identified a set of cell-free RNA (cfRNA) transcripts that accurately classified women who delivered preterm up to two months in advance of labor.
The free-floating genetic material has proven to be a powerful tool for detecting other problems, as well.
While more research is needed before the test is ready for widespread use, experts say it has the potential to reduce fatalities and complications from the 15 million premature births per year worldwide.