A small microfluidic device, designed by researchers at Brigham Young University, could help physicians predict whether a pregnant woman is at risk of delivering her baby early. As it’s estimated that 500,000 babies are born preterm in the US each year, and this number rises to 15 million on a worldwide scale, the biomarker-detecting device could go a long way to identifying women who are most at risk.
“It’s like we’re shrinking a whole laboratory and fitting it into one small microchip,” said lead author Mukul Sonker, Ph.D. candidate at Brigham Young University. The researchers published their work in the journal, Electrophoresis.
The lab-on-a-chip device is designed to use a drop of blood to test for nine biomarkers associated with preterm birth, with up to 90 percent accuracy. Since doctors currently only flag women as being at a high risk of preterm birth by noting factors such as pregnancy with multiples, and previous early deliveries, the biomarker device could be a more accurate predictor of risk.
According to Dr. Adam Woolley, a chemistry professor at Brigham Young University and study co-author, “the symptom of preterm labor is a woman goes into labor, and at that point you’re managing the outcome instead of trying to prepare for it.”
Wooley himself has had a personal experience with preterm birth. When pregnant with one of their children, Wooley’s wife experienced contractions during the beginning of the third trimester. Once at the hospital, their team of doctors were able to stop the labor from progressing, and the baby was delivered once it had reached full term.
The experience gave Wooley a better appreciation for the seriousness of preterm birth. “Ours was only a glimpse into the potential problems of a preterm birth, but it is still really satisfying to know that the research my students and I are doing now could help others in some way with this important medical issue.”
The lab-on-a-chip is small, portable, and inexpensive. While the device will require further development before it’s used in clinics, the researchers have come a long way to showing that this technology is viable.
Preterm births in the US have an estimated annual cost of $30 billion, so the biomarker device could detect and prevent some of these events. But the primary benefit of the lab-on-a-chip device is in preserving human life. “There are a lot of preterm babies who don’t survive: if we could get them to survive and thrive, it would be a huge gain to society,” said Wooley.