Imagine a cheaper and more accurate way to determine the health status of your fetus that does not require an ultrasound. Well, a simple blood test one day may be able to replace ultrasounds.

An international team of researchers have accurately demonstrated that a low cost, non-invasive procedure could accurately identify RNA fragments that are associated with a fetus’ development while the fetus is still in the womb.

Not only could it be possible to determine the delivery date, but you can also find out if your baby is at risk of being born prematurely, just by examining the genetic activity in the mother’s blood.

Although it’s still too soon to begin official clinical trials, early trials have shown that this new method could replace an expensive ultrasound. The blood test could also provide soon-to-be parents with warning signs of a possible premature birth.

“We found that a handful of genes are very highly predictive of which women are at risk for preterm delivery,” says the senior author of the study, Mads Melbye, president and CEO of the Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen.

“I’ve spent a lot of time over the years working to understand preterm delivery. This is the first real, significant scientific progress on this problem in long time,” Melbye continued.

Just about one in ten births in the US are premature, making it the leading cause of infant mortality. The blood test could get doctors and parents ahead of the curve and can potentially save many infant lives.

The Pilot Study

The research team conducted a study on 31 healthy pregnant women, and used 21 of the to create a statistical model based on nine transcripts of RNA from the mother’s immune system, the infant’s liver, and the placenta, according to

The study gave experts the ability to estimate the birth period for the remaining 10 mothers with 45 percent accuracy. 45 percent may not seem like a big deal, but it does put the new test in the same field as an ultrasound analysis.

The Second Study

The second study of volunteers were at a greater risk of delivering prematurely. Researchers searched for a combination of genes that were associated with premature deliveries. “It’s mostly maternal genes,” says Stanford University medical researcher, Mira Moufarrej. “We think it’s mom sending a signal that she’s ready to pull the ripcord.”

After analyzing the blood from eight mothers who gave birth prematurely, the test was correct for six of the eight mothers. This meant that just one out of the 26 full term deliveries was misclassified.

What’s Next?

Much larger and more diverse sample sizes are needed before researchers can say that they can demonstrate something that can be life changing.

During the first trimester of a pregnancy, doctors normally conduct an ultrasound, but not all mothers have the same access to these test and prenatal care and later scans do not provide the same amount of information.

The new blood test would be more accurate than an ultrasound in the second and third trimester. The test could also provide a plethora of details on the development of the fetus for a fraction of the cost.

“This gives a super-high resolution view of pregnancy and human development hat no one’s ever seen before,” says Thuy Ngo, lead author from Stanford University.

DNA and RNA cannot determine all gestational complications that have to do with environmental risk factors like smoking and diet habits. But, the ability to get a closer look at the genetic activity between mother and child could provide critical information on how to prepare for a newborn’s life.


Featured Image via Flickr/hala