Such a test would mean women identified as being at risk could potentially avail of emerging drug treatments to prevent giving birth inside 37 weeks.
The advantages of developing such a screening test for early pregnancy were outlined by Professor Louise Kenny, head of INFANT, the country’s only perinatal research centre, following an announcement yesterday that the UCC-linked centre is to receive €13.6m in funding.
Prof Kenny said they still had a “huge amount of work to do” before they developed a “clinically-useful test” but their task should be made easier by the fact they have already developed a screening test for pre-eclampsia, a condition linked to high blood pressure that can be fatal if untreated.
“We were working on the pre-eclampsia test for 12 years and we learned a lot in that scientific programme, which means that we’ll be able to shortcut using the same technology to the application of other conditions,” said Prof Kenny.
She is “hopeful” the test “will be ready for clinical trials in about two or three years”.
Currently, because doctors “don’t have any idea in early pregnancy” which women are at risk of pre-term birth, doctors were limited in prescribing “innovative therapies coming on stream” and women were reluctant to take such drugs, she said. The introduction of a sensitive screening test would “make a big difference in that respect”.
She said research to date “seems to suggest” they will be able to screen for pre-term birth as early as 15 weeks.
“Aside from actually altering antenatal care, that will also make a massive difference to our colleagues, who are developing therapies in this area.”
The INFANT research team, based at Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) is going to clinical trial next month with its pre-eclampsia screening test, with the first of 1,000 women due to be recruited in Cork, out of total of 5,000 across Europe.
The breakthrough work of the INFANT centre was commended yesterday by Research and Innovation Junior Minister Seán Sherlock, who made the funding announcement. Of the €13.6m, €7.6m will come through Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and a further €6m from 15 industry partners.
Mr Sherlock said the investment would address “the largely unmet need for effective screening tests for the most common complications of pregnancy and the most significant problems for newborn babies”.
SFI director general Mark Ferguson said intellectual copyright for any breakthrough tests developed by INFANT and adapted by industry for the marketplace would depend on who had invested what.
“What happens there is that we assign all of the intellectual property from SFI, from the government, to the university... and, in simple terms, it depends who has invested, so if the industry is heavily invested, then obviously the return to the university would be less. If the SFI investment through the university was the predominant feature, then the return would be more,” said Prof Ferguson.