Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions’ team publishes findings in the journal PLOS One

Jul. 21, 2016

Suzanne Tough, PhD
Suzanne Tough, PhD

(Calgary & Edmonton, Alberta)… An Alberta-led team of researchers have developed a blood test to identify pregnant women at risk of delivering babies prematurely – before the usual 40 weeks of gestation.  Premature birth remains the main cause of child-related mortality in the developed world. The technique was developed by the Preterm Birth and Healthy Outcomes Team (PreHOT) members Dr. Jan Heng (Harvard Medical School), Stephen Lye, PhD (University of Toronto), Suzanne Tough, PhD (University of Calgary), and David Olson, PhD (University of Alberta).

The researchers looked at women who participated in the All Our Babies (AOB) study – a community-based pregnancy study from Calgary, Alberta. The team collected blood from women at two points during their pregnancy: at 17 weeks when fetal ultrasound is conducted and at approximately 27 weeks, when gestational diabetes screening is performed. The multidisciplinary and international team consisted of clinicians, scientists and biostatisticians. They looked at gene expression, profiling, and bioinformatics, that when coupled with a patient’s clinical history, including previous preterm births, abortions or anaemia, they discovered they could predict whether or not a woman would deliver prematurely. 

“Identifying those women who are at risk of premature birth, early in their pregnancies will help clinicians personalize approaches to prevent preterm birth. Developing a reliable screening tool like a blood test could allow us to intervene early in a woman’s pregnancy,” says Suzanne Tough. This work was completed by post-doctoral trainee, Dr. Jan Heng, as part of PreHOT, funded by Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions (AIHS). The PreHOT team looked at addressing the common and complex problem of preterm birth.

“This new test is important for several reasons,” says David Olson. “It has the ability to predict which women may go into preterm labour. About eight out of 10 women who present with symptoms will not deliver early and will deliver at normal term. This test has high positive predictive power for women who will deliver early. It is also important because it will help in the development of new drugs and interventions to delay preterm labour and prolong pregnancy for the benefit of the baby.”

“There are tests to determine if a woman will deliver prematurely,” says Donna Slater, PhD. “But these tests are much too late in a woman’s pregnancy to do anything about it. The blood test we’ve developed detects risk much earlier in a woman’s pregnancy. It will one day prove most beneficial to women who are at the highest risk to deliver preterm. By knowing risk, in advance, unnecessary and expensive tests can be avoided by those women who are most likely to go the full 40 weeks in their pregnancy.”

Preterm birth has been identified by the World Health Organization as the number one pregnancy and perinatal health problem in the world. Each year there are 15 million preterm births globally. Of those, one million babies will not survive. As a group, infants who are born preterm will also experience a higher incidence of health problems in their lives, including obesity, diabetes, behavioural problems and cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases.

“Alberta has one of the highest preterm birth rates in Canada,” says Dr. Pamela Valentine, AIHS CEO (Interim) and Transition CEO for Alberta Innovates. “Preventing premature birth is key to healthy moms and babies. We congratulate the Preterm Birth and Healthy Outcomes Team on making such a remarkable discovery. This type of collaborative research and innovation will put Alberta at the forefront of understanding premature births, and that will benefit women not only in Alberta but around the world.”




Jan Heng, PhD was a postdoctoral trainee working under the supervision of Stephen Lye, PhD at the University of Toronto, when she made the discovery.  She is now at the Harvard Medical School. She was the first author of the publication:  Maternal Whole Blood Gene Expression at 18 and 28 Weeks of Gestation Associated with Spontaneous Preterm Birth in Asymptomatic Women, in the June edition of PLOS ONE.

Suzanne Tough, PhD is an Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions’ Health Scholar.  She is a Professor in the departments of Paediatrics and Community Health Sciences in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. She is also a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

David Olson, PhD is a Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta

Donna Slater, PhD is an Associate Professor in Physiology and Pharmacology in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. She is also a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

The Preterm Birth and Healthy Outcomes Team was funded by a five year, $5 million grant from Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions.

The All Our Babies (AOB) cohort is a longitudinal cohort study that aims to understand the influence of early-life factors on child and family health and development across the life-course. Approximately 3,300 pregnant women were recruited beginning in 2008, and the last baby was born in 2011. Extensive demographic, mental health, lifestyle and health service utilization data were obtained from each woman. Approximately 1,800 of these women also provided biologic samples. Blood samples obtained during pregnancy allow for genetic and biomarker analysis, and components of these samples are being stored for future analysis.

The Cumming School of Medicine is a leader in health research, with an international reputation for excellence and innovation in health care research and education. On June 17, 2014, the University of Calgary Faculty Of Medicine was formally named the Cumming School of Medicine in recognition of Geoffrey Cumming’s generous gift to the university.

The Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta serves the public good through excellence in medical and health professions’ education, research, and patient care. We build partnerships essential to a high-performing academic health sciences centre. 

The Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) supports excellence in research, innovation and knowledge translation to improve the health and well-being of children from pre-conception to adulthood.  With our partners at the University of Calgary, Alberta Health Services and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, our multi-disciplinary institute creates new knowledge to change practice and shape policy in ways that improve child health outcomes.

Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions (AIHS) supports research and innovation activities to improve the health and wellbeing of Albertans and create health related social and economic benefits for Albertans. AIHS provides leadership for Alberta’s health research and innovation enterprise by directing, coordinating, reviewing, funding and supporting research and innovation. 

In Fall, 2016, AIHS will be consolidated with the three other Innovates agencies to become Alberta Innovates, providing centralized access to services and supports to innovators, researchers, industry and partners.

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Preterm birth

Read why an early birth is a global health concern.