A groundbreaking study at the Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital may result in a massive improvement in fetal medicine. Scientists have developed a new test that can enable reduction in the risk of premature and still births.
New South Wales Health Minister John Della Bosca said that researchers from the hospital's newly opened Kolling Institute of Medical Research have found a protein, called angiopoietin-2, in the blood of expectant mothers that can tell if unborn babies are at risk of being born malnourished
Almost one in 100 mothers with low levels of the angiopoietin-2 protein is prone to experience problems with poor nourishment by the placenta during pregnancy.
Malnourished babies fail to grow properly and are at risk of pre-term birth, stillbirth, learning difficulties and heart disease later in life.
In earlier studies, scientists found that restricted growth of the fetus could be detected late in the pregnancy, at about 30 weeks, by applying a combination of clinical examinations and ultrasounds.
Professor Jonathan Morris, head of maternal fetal medicine, said that the only effective treatment in such a situation was has been to deliver the baby early in the hope it will survive.
But, with the new findings, doctors will now be able to measure the levels of the protein in the mother's blood as early as 10 weeks into the pregnancy and thus treat the mum-to-be accordingly.
"Those women who have low levels of this protein are destined to have pregnancies that end with babies being born very small, poorly nourished, at risk of still birth, short-term and indeed long-term problems," the Sydney Morning Herald quoted professor Jonathan Morris as telling reporters at the Royal North Shore Hospital.
He added: "The real aim here is to reduce the rate of pre-term birth due to fetal birth restriction. This has implications for every woman, not only here in NSW but internationally."
Also, he claimed that mothers who are diagnosed to have low levels of the protein would then be treated using existing fetal growth methods, such as using anti-clotting agents to improve blood flow through the placenta.
Della Bosca claimed that the discovery was testament to the benefits of the state's large public health system.
"This is an exciting breakthrough for expectant parents," he said.