Blood test could help doctors predict which mothers will have premature birth

PALO ALTO, Calif. – The tiniest of tiny, preemies, weighing in at three, two, even one pound are being born, surviving and thriving. The youngest baby to survive was born at just 21 weeks. Baby James is now in his mid-20’s and perfectly healthy.

Any baby born before 37 weeks is considered premature. Right now, there’s no telling which moms will deliver early and which ones will go the full 40 weeks. Soon, a simple blood test may be able to pinpoint a due date and save little lives.

You could say Haven and his mom are both heroes.

“I tell people this is like a war zone, only this time it’s not my life on the line, it’s my little innocent child’s,” said Amanda Smith, Haven’s mother.

Smith, an Iraq and Afghanistan war vet and NATO medal of honor recipient, gave birth to Haven 100 days early, weighing just nine-tenths of a pound.

“It’s about the size of a Coke can,” Smith said.

Haven is one of 450,000 babies in the U.S. born prematurely each year. For two-thirds of those deliveries, no one knows why.

“When people think about what tools an obstetrician has right now to look at a pregnancy, it’s ultrasound and that’s it,” said Mira Moufarrej, a bioengineering PhD student at Stanford University.

Now bioengineers at Stanford have developed a blood test that detects with 80% accuracy who will deliver early, something that ultrasound cannot do.

"It tells you more about what’s going on in the process of building a baby and what might go wrong,” Moufarrej explained.

The test looks at RNA molecules found in the mother’s blood.

“Looking at those seven types of RNA molecules, they’re higher in women who deliver preterm than full-term,” Moufarrej said.

The team hopes doctors will then be able to start treatments that will delay delivery. Haven spent the first 241 days of his life in the hospital, has had seven surgeries since birth, he’s on oxygen and takes 18 syringes of medication daily. His mom said he’s a fighter.

In low-resource settings, a test to predict time to delivery has tremendous potential to impact women’s health particularly for disadvantaged women with limited access to hospitals.

Because a blood test is cheap and easy to use, it has the potential to complement ultrasound and expand access to good prenatal care. Smith is documenting little Haven’s journey. You can follow them both on Facebook at https://m.facebook.com/TeamHavenGreyson/.

Contributors to this news report include: Marsha Lewis, Field Producer; Evan Boarders, Videographer; Cyndy McGrath, Supervising Producer; Roque Correa, Editor.