Unfortunately, preterm births are still a frightening reality for many expectant mothers. The World Health Organisation estimates that 15 million babies, approximately 1 in 10, are born too early every year.
Preterm births occur when infants are born more than three weeks before the predicted due date. Any birth that happens before the 37th week of pregnancy is considered premature.
Premature newborns, particularly those born very early, are prone to various medical issues, ranging from mild to severe. The earlier your baby is born, the greater the chance of medical difficulties.
What Are The Potential Complications of Preterm Birth?
Over the last three to four decades, the mortality rate for preterm infants and the gestational age-specific mortality rate have improved significantly. However, preterm infants remain at risk for a range of complications.
To fully develop, babies require a complete term in the womb. The myriad health complications preterm infants are at risk from include respiratory distress syndrome, chronic lung disease, intestine issues, a compromised immune system, cardiovascular disorders, hearing and vision problems, and neurological insult. This will impact their lives and could place a significant financial burden on society for several generations. The following are some of the most prevalent health issues that affect premature babies:
- Prematurity apnea, or sleep apnea; characterized by brief pauses in breathing.
- Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) known as underdeveloped lungs.
- Bleeding in the brain or intraventricular haemorrhage.
- Inflammation of the intestines (necrotizing enterocolitis).
- Blood infection in newborns, often known as neonatal sepsis.
- PDA (patent ductus arteriosus) is a condition in which the heart’s blood flow is arrhythmic.
- Retinopathy of prematurity; a condition in which the blood vessels of the eye are undeveloped.
In a 2021 study published in Europe PMC it was found that for infants who survived the first 3 days in neonatal intensive care, median total cost was approximately €85 000. This figure only encapsulates the cost of caring for premature infants and doesn’t assess the costs that developmental difficulties later in life may incur. Some of the health problems that could present in maturity include:
- Cerebral palsy.
- Behavioural issues.
- Hearing and vision problems.
- Learning disabilities.
- Poor growth.
What Can Cause Preterm Birth?
There are many chemical, biological, clinical, behavioural, social, and community determinants of preterm birth. The medical community knows more about the complex interactions of these factors and how they influence preterm birth than ever before. Yet, there are still many unknowns.
With the LifeSaver project, our research focuses on testing of typical drugs and chemicals that can pass the placenta and hence affect prenatal conditions. We aim to recreate the critical components of placental tissue to assess how much commonly found chemicals, microplastics and pharmaceuticals could penetrate the placental barrier and become a risk for a developing fetus.
A comprehensive review of existing studies documenting the effects of prenatal exposure to a range of chemicals shows just how much we have yet to learn. The review focuses on chemicals that have been linked to health concerns, such as phthalates, bisphenol-A, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and perfluorinated compounds.
The ever-increasing presence of microplastics in our everyday lives is a growing cause for concern. According to a research paper from Environmental Health Perspectives, “the impacts of plastic particles are unexplored, especially with regard to early life exposures.” Additionally, with new drugs being brought to the market every day, it may prove difficult for medical professionals to keep up with what may affect placental tissue. A 2019 paper published by F1000Research, flagged just how many gaps in current knowledge there are.
The LifeSaver Project
The common denominator with all the potentially harmful substances we have listed is just how much we have yet to learn. Animal studies can often offer us indications and guidance on what might be detrimental in the prenatal stage. However, testing the impacts of certain substances simply isn’t possible without recreating in-vitro conditions.
Currently, the only definitive, empirical way to confirm a biomedical product’s safety and efficacy is to test it on humans through clinical assessment. Yet, the vast health risks and ethical concerns in endangering women and their unborn children during such a fragile time are unheard of. Only 1% of all clinical trials in the United States are focused on the effects of various substances on the developing foetus. This is why LifeSaver’s groundbreaking research will play a vital role in future prenatal testing.
The LifeSaver In-Vitro Testing Platform
The digitally cloned in-vitro system proposed by LifeSaver researchers promises to emulate prenatal conditions, especially the placental interface and amniotic sac. A higher biofidelity offered by this in-vitro system would act as a risk predictor for both drug and chemical substances, assessing their true impact on unborn babies.
The development of this type of testing platform could also herald significant progress in substance and health testing in general. The platform envisioned by LifeSaver could also move us away from animal testing once and for all while still offering us credible experimental screening and analysis of chemicals and pharmaceuticals on their potential to cross placental tissue barriers.
When outlining the many severe complications that preterm birth poses to premature infants, it’s evident how necessary the LifeSaver project is. This innovative approach to prenatal screening has the potential to revolutionize prenatal care.
To find out more about our project, tune in to the LifeSaver podcast where the experts weigh in and share the objectives of the project.