Researchers say a simple test could help to prevent stillbirths

8 December 2013 2:00 PM

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Researchers say a simple test could help to prevent stillbirths

Australian researchers are confident they have found a blood test that could help prevent stillbirth, a tragedy that affects millions of people globally every year.

In a world first that has the potential to transform the management of complicated pregnancies and births, Mercy Health researchers in Melbourne have discovered a way to accurately measure a baby's oxygen levels inside the womb.

This has long troubled clinicians who say it can be difficult to diagnose and measure the extent of oxygen and nutrition deprivation in foetuses - a condition that leads to about half of the 2000 stillbirths that occur in Australia each year.

Infants can also suffer serious injuries, including brain damage, from low oxygen levels during these complicated pregnancies.

The head of Mercy Health's Translational Obstetrics Group, Stephen Tong, said until now, doctors have typically used ultrasounds to estimate if a baby is lacking oxygen in the womb. But he said it was a blunt instrument that could not always be relied on for clinical decisions about when to deliver a baby at risk of death.

''Sometimes we time it too late and there is a stillbirth, or the best guess is to deliver and we deliver early and the baby has suffered from the potential risk of prematurity,'' he said.

But Clare Whitehead, a scientist who works with Professor Tong, has found that when a foetus is suffering from low oxygen levels, fragments of genetic material called RNA leaks out of the placenta and into the mother's blood, making it detectable with a simple blood test.

She said these RNA measurements could also be charted to show how much oxygen was lacking. The finding will be published in BMC Medicine on Monday.

Dr Whitehead said although tests performed on about 100 women so far gave her confidence it worked, the team was now running a clinical trial involving about 180 pregnancies at seven hospitals.

''We'll get those results over the next few years, but the technology already exists, so we could have a test within five years,'' she said.


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