Dr. Adam Woolley and Dr. Steven Graves are working to develop medical tools that can better detect the likelihood of premature infant delivery.
Start: April 1, 2006
End: May 31, 2017
- Sponsor: NIH
- Principal Investigator: Adam Woolley
- Co PI: Steven Graves
- Website: http://www.chem.byu.edu/faculty/adam-t-woolley/
Approximately 15 million babies are born prematurely every year throughout the world. In the United States the rate for preterm birth (PTB) is lower, but still averages about every 1 in 9 babies. Typically, a pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks, with most infants born between week 37 and week 41. Any baby that is born before 37 weeks is considered “preterm” or “premature”.
PTB is the most common cause for infant health complication and infant death because the child has not had the full time to mature inside the mother. Some complications include underdeveloped lungs and other organs, susceptibility to infection, and inability to maintain body heat. While recent technology can aid in the care for these vulnerable children, these treatments are often expensive and not readily available, more so in developing nations. Furthermore, there is no proven method to predict preterm births. Current methods require specialists to make educated assumptions based off of risk factors (mother’s health and age, history of a PTB and if the mother is carrying multiple fetuses etc.)
The focus of Professor Woolley’s research is to create medical materials that assess the likelihood of early labor and how early it would be, based on biological markers. The first part of the process is to extract the PTB biomarkers (certain proteins and peptides associated with preterm birth) and holds them ready to be tested. The second stage distinguishes the different samples with a “fluorescent tag”, which are molecules that safely bind themselves to a certain target, therefore making the various biomarkers visible. The third step uses electricity to separate the tagged biomarkers into chosen serums and then pass them through a laser. This enables the machine to measure the biomarker concentration levels, and see how these correlate with the likelihood of PTB.
This platform is surprisingly simple, quick and inexpensive, with the current prototype designs for the microchip controller and reader at about the size of a shoebox. The device will be relatively inexpensive, require minimal sample amounts, and offer immediate results, ensuring that it can be implemented in urban as well as developing areas.
Once distributed, the device and procedure is expected to improve prenatal clinical practices, as it will be able to quantify the likelihood and severity of PTB several weeks before the potential birth. Current prediction models that are based on risk factors are not precise enough for doctors and parents to undertake any cautionary treatments or attempt to remedy PTB. However, the test designed by Dr. Wooley’s team would provide concrete and reliable feedback that could be used to implement preventative measures to ease, prolong, and even circumvent PTB. As delaying preterm birth a few weeks until the baby has reached term can profoundly affect the development and safety of the baby, these measures would stand to save lives of children who would otherwise die, as well as improving quality of life for individuals who would have been negatively impacted by PTB.