(Inside Science) — Life is a journey, long and rich for some. But for some babies born too soon, the journey can be harsh and short. Every year, more than 15 million babies are delivered preterm — or early in the third trimester, when important body parts grow, like the digestive system, and when cartilage starts to transform into bones.
“Babies that are delivered early have a much higher risk of neurological disorders and underdeveloped lungs and respiratory system. The problems with these kids do not end at the delivery but they basically follow them all through their life; some of them never recover,” said Jessica Ramella, from Florida International University in Miami.
A normal, full-term pregnancy is about 40 weeks. But around the world, more than one in 10 babies are born before 37 weeks of gestation. Complications from preterm birth are the leading cause of death among children under five, and preterm birth claims a million deaths each year worldwide. The World Health Organization estimates that 75 percent of those deaths could be prevented. To learn more about preterm labor, researchers want to look at changes in the cervix, the narrow passage at the bottom of the uterus. The cervix is mainly made of collagen fibers that are structured in an organized way. As a pregnancy moves along, the collagen becomes disorganized, which helps make the cervix flexible and softer, so the baby can move through it.
“Think about the cervix as a stopper basically; it’s the load-bearing structure that holds the baby in, through all of the period of a pregnancy, so it has to be strong enough to sustain the weight of a baby and the placenta, and so what we are focusing on is the loss of structural integrity of the cervix,” said Ramella.
Researchers are testing whether changes within the cervix happen too soon in preterm labor — changes that cause it to become weak, too early. “We created a number of devices actually to look at the collagen arrangement in the cervix. So, the cervix has a very ordered arrangement of collagen and we can measure that order through polarization technique,” said Ramella.
The goal is to measure the collagen as it becomes more disorganized throughout the pregnancy to get a better picture of how it might contribute to preterm birth. Ramella and her team are starting the technique with human patients soon. But the work shows promise for earlier detection. “If we could detect preterm birth early we could direct the mother towards some therapeutic intervention,” concluded Ramella.