Lab on a chip designed to minimize preterm births

By Al Saint Jacques, MDLinx
Published April 26, 2017

Key Takeaways

Health statistics show that in the United States alone, a half million babies are born preterm. Worldwide, the number is an estimated to be 15 million. Researchers noted that complications associated with preterm birth are the main cause of death for children under 5, and those who live often face a range of health problems.

Researchers from Brigham Young University are hoping that with help from a palm-sized plastic rectangle with a few pinholes in it, they will be able to minimize the problem of premature deliveries. The small chip, called an integrated microfluidic device, can be used to predict, with up to 90% accuracy, a woman’s risk for a future preterm birth, according to a study recently published in the journal Electrophoresis.

“It’s like we’re shrinking a whole laboratory and fitting it into one small microchip,” said BYU chemistry PhD student Mukul Sonker, who is the lead author of a study.

Researchers explain that the goal for the device is to take a finger-prick’s worth of blood and measure a panel of nine identified preterm birth biomarkers that are essentially biological flags that can tip clinicians off to diseases or other conditions. Currently, there aren’t any biomarker-based diagnostics for preterm births, and physicians typically only keep tabs on women who have other clear risk factors.

For the most part, “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,” said Adam Woolley, BYU chemistry professor and study co-author.

This research is a bit more personal for Woolley because with their oldest child, Woolley’s wife began having contractions early in her third trimester. With the help of hospital intervention, eventually her contractions stopped and she was able to carry their son full term. “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.”

They say there is still work to be done at the front end of the process, but for this study, Sonker and Woolley, along with BYU post-docs Radim Knob and Vishal Sahore, created the chip and a system for preconcentrating and separating biomarkers on it. That’s important, explained Sonker, “because when you look at these proteins and peptides, they’re present in such a trace amount, but if you preconcentrate them on the chip, you can get enough of a signal for prediction.”

Among other benefits include the fact that the device is cheap, small, and fast. Once it is fully developed, said Woolley, “it will help make detecting biomarkers a simple, automated task.”

Some estimate that the annual costs associated with preterm birth just in the United States would be close to $30 billion, so one clear perk of such a screening tool is economic, said Woolley. More significantly, he added, “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.”

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