Non-invasive device predicts onset of premature birth

Scientists at Leeds University researching the relationship between electrical signals in the womb and the onset of labour have received funding to turn the idea of a labour prediction device into reality.

A staggering 10 per cent of the estimated 600,000 pregnancies in the UK each year are likely to be premature but Dr Nigel Simpson and Professor James Walker from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University’s Medical School believe that labour is a predictable event.

‘We could nip the whole cascade of events in the bud,’ said Simpson. He and Walker found that the electrical signals that stimulate muscle contraction in the uterus change over the course of pregnancy.

As an expectant mother gets closer to labour, the uterine muscles begin to act in unison, getting ready to force the baby out. As this happens, the number of random muscle contractions, which show up as high-frequency peaks in the signal, show signs of decreasing.

Following progress in computer analysis of these electrical signals, they are working to develop a small hand-held non-invasive device that will accurately predict the onset of labour up to two weeks in advance.

Through Leeds Innovations, the University’s technology transfer company, Dr Simpson and Professor Walker have set up a spin-off company, Jopejo Ltd and successfully applied for funding from the White Rose Technology Seedcorn Fund.

The funding will enable the development of the prototype device and support a substantial clinical trial.

Whilst the device will eventually be used for women at risk of premature labour, it may also be adapted into an ‘over-the-counter’ version that all pregnant women will be able to buy or hire.

The device may be employed for use with animals where breeding programmes requiring the close monitoring of pregnancy would be advantageous.

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