Researchers in Calgary and Toronto have developed a blood test that detects if a pregnant woman is at risk of delivering her baby prematurely.

With an 86 per cent accuracy rate, the new test is more accurate than any existing procedures, said the Sinai Health System in a release.

The study was published this month in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed journal of the Public Library of Science.

The research was a joint project of Jan Heng from Harvard University, Stephen Lye at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute — part of Toronto's Sinai Health System — and Suzanne Tough at the University of Calgary.

"The fantastic thing that was found in this study is that the combination of clinical risk factors, and gene expression profiles, can help us better understand which women might be at risk of spontaneous preterm birth," Tough said.

Long-term consequences 

"These children often end up in neo-natal intensive care, and then there's long-term consequences to these children just of being in neo-natal intensive care."

Preterm birth occurs in five to 10 per cent of all pregnancies, but is associated with 70 per cent of all newborn deaths, excluding genetic anomalies, the release said.

"The earlier we can identify risk of a premature birth the better for the women and baby as it buys time for clinicians to develop and implement personalized measures to prevent preterm delivery," said Heng.

"One way to achieve that is to develop a reliable screening tool that can be easily integrated with routine antenatal care, like this blood test which we specifically developed to synchronize with blood work during standard antenatal care."

The researchers looked at a group of more than 1,800 Calgary women, collecting blood from them at approximately 17 weeks — when fetal ultrasound was conducted — and at approximately 27 weeks, when gestational diabetes screening is performed. 

Lye said the new test could help drug studies focus on women who are at the highest risk of delivering preterm as they evaluate new treatments.