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Fetal and neonatal mortality and morbidity rates are strongly associated with gestational age for delivery: the risk for poor outcome increases as gestational age decreases. Attempts to predict preterm delivery (PTD, spontaneous delivery before 37 weeks’ gestation) have been largely unsuccessful, and rates of PTD have not improved in recent decades. More recently, the reported associations between infections in pregnancy and PTD suggest preventive initiatives that could be taken.

The overall objective of the current study is to assess whether specific markers of infection (primarily interleukin (IL) 1β, tumour necrosis factor (TNF) α, IL-6, and IL-10) obtained from maternal blood during pregnancy, alone or in combination with other risk factors for PTD, permit identification of women at risk for spontaneous PTD. To achieve this objective, data are obtained from two Danish prospective cohort studies involving serial collection of maternal blood samples, newborn cord blood samples, and relevant confounders and other risk factors for PTD. The first study consists of a completed Danish regional cohort of 3000 pregnant women enrolled in a study of microbiological causes of PTD, upon which a nested case-control study of PTD in 84 cases and 400 controls has been performed. The second study is a nested case-control study of 675 PTD cases (equally divided into three gestational age categories of 24–29 weeks’ gestation, 30–33 weeks’ gestation, and 34–36 weeks’ gestation) and 675 controls drawn from the ongoing Danish National Birth Cohort study of 100 000 pregnant women enrolled during 1997–2001. The second study will provide the opportunity to refine and retest hypotheses from the first study, as well as to explore new hypotheses. Our preliminary work suggests that a single predictive marker effectively accounting for a large proportion of PTD is unlikely to be found. Rather, a search for multiple markers indicative of the multifactorial aetiology of PTD is likely to be more successful.

Knowledge gained from the proposed studies will be implemented in a third, clinical intervention study against PTD. The first phase of the clinical intervention study will be to establish a risk-assessment model based on the ‘best’ combination of biological/biochemical measures and other factors associated with PTD in order to identify pregnant women at very high risk of PTD. The second phase will be to apply an intervention model of tailored obstetric care to the very high-risk pregnant women for PTD identified in phase one. The intervention will be carried out against each specific risk factor associated with PTD identified for the individual. The aim is to reduce the risk for PTD attributed to the combination of risk factors included in the clinical intervention study.