‘Next Generation’ Device Could Herald Breakthrough in Prediction of Preterm Birth

  • Doctors and scientists from the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS foundation trust to use pioneering technology to develop and test new device that could predict onset of premature labour
  • Small pencil-tip probe detects properties that are known to change in the cervix prior to the onset of premature labour
  • Once tested, all pregnant women could be offered an assessment of their risk of premature labour during their mid-pregnancy anomaly scan, between the 18th and 20th week of pregnancy

A new ‘next generation’ device which could help doctors reliably predict the risk of preterm birth is to be developed by the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust thanks to funding from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

Globally around 15 million babies are born prematurely (before 37 weeks) every year – a number which is rising, and complications from preterm birth are the leading cause of death among children under five years of age, responsible for nearly 1 million deaths annually.

Now a team of doctors and scientists from the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, who recently showed that women who are at high risk of preterm birth have lower resistance in their cervix in mid-pregnancy than women who deliver at term, have been awarded £792,753 to test a small pencil-tip probe to detect properties that are known to change in the cervix prior to the onset of premature labour.

The device, which was developed and manufactured at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital is a more advanced version of its predecessor.  It uses pioneering patented technology involving a novel method of impedance spectroscopy to pick up on changes to the composition and structure of cervical tissue.

Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is a world-leading centre for impedance spectroscopy, and has been at the forefront of using the technique to study human tissue and make advances in the screening of cervical cancer and mouth cancer.

Once tested, all pregnant women could be offered an assessment of their risk of premature labour during their mid-pregnancy anomaly scan, between the 18th and 20th week of pregnancy.

Professor Dilly Anumba of the Academic Unit of Reproductive and Developmental Medicine and Consultant in Obstetrics & Gynaecology said: “Preterm birth is a huge global problem, and prediction and prevention of preterm birth remain challenging, because current methods, such as measuring the cervix by ultrasound, have limited accuracy.  If a technique that reliably predicts preterm birth could be developed, care measure can be employed to delay birth to reduce potential long-term disability and impairment.  We know that even if we can delay birth by a number of weeks, we can reduce the risk of more severe outcomes.  Thanks to NIHR funding, we will now be able to improve on our original promising invention, and build on the world-l;eading expertise in Sheffield to improve pregnancy and preterm outcomes.”

The first version of the device, which used electrical impedance spectroscopy, was tested on 500 women in a clinical research trial.  Up to 200 women who previously had a preterm birth will take part in the new study employing this innovative technique.  The project commenced in January 2017.

The NIHR funding has been awarded to Professor Dilly Anumba, Academic Unit of Reproductive and Developmental Medicine, Dr Timothy James Healey, Clinical Engineering, STH, Professor Simon Dixon, HEDS Group ScHARR, Professor Stephen Walter, ScHARR, Mrs Mags Openshaw, PPI Co-applicant.