There is a revolutionary blood test that would be given to pregnant women to determine the size and help monitor the health of small babies so they scale through the high risk of being born stillborn.
One in 20 babies are starved in the womb, through a malfunction in the placenta or poor blood flow through the umbilical cord.
These tiny babies are at risk of dying, or can be left with cerebral palsy, but often go undetected in low-risk healthy mothers who are currently not offered scans in the last trimester of pregnancy.
However scientists at Queen Mary University of London have now found a protein the mother’s blood, called DLK1, which provides a biological read-out of their baby’s wellbeing.
In a study of 129 first-time mothers, raised levels of DLK1 were linked to babies struggling to grow through pregnancy complications.
It means in future doctors could predict these complications and deliver a baby early, saving their life.
Lead researcher Dr Marika Charalambous from QMUL said: ‘At the moment, there are very few ways of predicting which pregnancies will go wrong, and which small babies are small because they are not getting enough nutrition while in the womb, and which are small simply because of their genes.’
Professor Andrew Shennan, clinical director of Tommy’s Prematurity Birth Clinic at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, added: ‘Normally we measure this by measuring the mother’s tummy or asking her if her baby has been moving properly.
‘But this is not always good enough to pick up a problem. This is where a test like this could be very valuable.’
‘Getting clues early on to the health of a baby from a simple test would allow us to spend more time with a mother, doing scans and surveillance.’
Around a third of stillborn babies have not reached a normal size, and poor growth, or growth that starts well and tails off, is a sign a baby is at risk.
Women are told to look out for fewer kicks than usual, which is a warning sign but not a failsafe method.
DLK1 levels in the mother have been found to provide more information, predicting how big the baby has grown.
Scientists determined in mice experiments that the protein, which circulates at high levels in a woman’s blood during late pregnancy, comes from her baby, not her.
This was established by knocking out the gene which expresses it in both the foetus and mother.
They then figured out the importance of DLK1 to providing energy for the foetus, as without it pregnant mice were not able to burn energy from fat stores.
Finally, the researchers studied 129 first time mothers, taking measurements of DLK1 levels in their blood and recording the outcomes of their pregnancies.
They found that low DLK1 levels were associated with reduced growth of the foetus resulting from pregnancy complications, including poor blood flow through the umbilical cord.
Dr Charalambous said: ‘Measuring DLK1 levels in the mother’s blood could be a reliable and non-invasive way of predicting whether there are likely to be complications, especially those that cause reduced nutrient supply to the baby.
‘In those instances, you really need to get the baby out quickly, so women could opt to have an early elective delivery.’
The study, published in the journal Nature Genetics, is hoped to lead to further clinical studies in humans to determine if DLK1 could be used in a blood test for all pregnant women.
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