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Risk of foetal growth problems detectable in mother?s blood in early pregnancy

1 December 2009

Health Research Board-funded scientist finds warning signals in bloodstream during early pregnancy

If a baby doesn?t grow sufficiently while in the womb the consequences can be devastating: growth restriction increases the risk of stillbirth and immediate and long-term medical problems linked with low birth weight.

Now work funded by the Health Research Board has identified a potential way to identify in early-to-mid pregnancy women whose babies are at around 44 times higher risk than normal of intra-uterine growth restriction.

The study is one of over 40 projects highlighted in the Health Research Board?s annual Picture of Health 2011 publication. Launched on Thursday December 1st, the HRB Picture of Health communicates the findings of recently funded research to a general audience.

The study on growth restriction is timely because we currently have no way of predicting in early pregnancy which babies could be at risk of not growing to their potential, explains HRB-funded clinical fellow Dr Richard Horgan.

But he has identified a particular signature of biochemicals measurable in the blood in early pregnancy that warn of an increased risk, and they could in the future be used to identify women who need closer monitoring as the pregnancy progresses.

Dr Horgan found a set of 19 key biochemicals in blood samples just 15 weeks into the pregnancy. The relative levels of these ?metabolites? could be linked with the risk of later growth complications.

?If these metabolites were found in early pregnancy, you were 44 times more likely to have a growth restricted baby than normal growth,? says Dr Horgan, who worked with HRB Clinician Scientist Prof Louise Kenny and conducted the study at University College Cork and the University of Manchester, UK. ?The ideal future outcome from this finding would be a simple blood test in early pregnancy so you could identify the risks and then slipstream monitoring services towards those women who need them.?

The markers are now being validated in around 3,000 pregnant women through SCOPE (Screening for Pregnancy Endpoints), a major international study involving New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, the US, Canada and Ireland, which has received support from the HRB.

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