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Preventable measures

Terra Nova Innovator detecting premature births


By Jackey Locke

One of three stories recognizing Memorial’s newest Terra Nova Innovator Award recipients. Read them all by following the related content links below.

Premature birth is one of the most common pregnancy complications.

Premature babies are also at higher risk of severe medical conditions that can be life-threatening.

In Canada, eight per cent of births are premature, with Newfoundland and Labrador having the second highest rate in the country.

If a premature birth is detected, there are treatments available to protect the baby, but there are no reliable methods for early detection.

Potential biomarkers

Recent evidence has found a strong association between placental dysfunction and pre-term births.

As one of Memorial University’s newest Terra Nova Innovator Award recipients, this is the focus of Dr. Cahill’s research.

Dr. Cahill, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science, and her team recently discovered altered metabolite levels in biopsied placental tissue samples following delivery of pre-term fetuses compared to healthy controls.

This is promising because placental metabolites may be potential biomarkers for the early detection of metabolomic abnormalities that lead to pre-term births.

“Female-specific experiences, such as pregnancy, are underfunded and understudied.” — Dr. Lindsay Cahill

With the Terra Nova Innovator Award, Dr. Cahill will study the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for pregnant people to determine whether chemical changes in the placenta can be used to detect whether a baby is at risk.

The study will demonstrate the feasibility of this approach for predicting pre-term birth and will provide critical information for a future, large-scale clinical study.

“Female-specific experiences, such as pregnancy, are underfunded and understudied,” said Dr. Cahill. “This recognition signals to me that this is changing and I am hopeful we will soon see significant improvements in health for women and gender-diverse persons.”

Dr. Lindsay Cahill in her lab.
Dr. Lindsay Cahill says her work has the potential to provide opportunities for interventions that will improve birth outcomes.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The project will be patient-oriented, involving patient partners at all stages of the research.

To prepare for the project, Dr. Cahill and her team conducted a survey of 156 pregnant people in Newfoundland and Labrador about their perceptions of MRIs during pregnancy.

While MRI is considered to be safe during pregnancy, the survey revealed there are fears and misconceptions about their use during pregnancy.

Predicting and diagnosing

One of Dr. Cahill’s goals is to improve patient knowledge about the benefits and safety of MRIs during pregnancy since accurate prediction of pre-term births promises to have an immediate impact on society, improving children’s health outcomes.

“While this method has been tremendously successful at finding chemical signatures for the detection of human diseases, the potential in pregnancy has yet to be explored,” she explained. “The proposed approach will identify molecules essential for developing routine tests that accurately predict and diagnose pre-term birth. This work has the potential to significantly enhance fetal health by identifying those at risk of pre-term birth, providing opportunities for interventions that will improve birth outcomes.”

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