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An Easy to Do Cheek Swab Test May Help Predict Preterm Birth Early

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A very non-invasive and easy to do cheek swab could help identify preterm delivery early.

Infants born before 37 weeks of pregnancy are more likely to die, and those who survive are more likely to suffer from a variety of health problems, some of which can last a lifetime, such as cognitive deficits and cardiovascular problems.

Preterm birth can be caused by a variety of causes, including twin or multiple pregnancy and the high-blood pressure illnesses known as preclampsia — although some preterm births are unexpected.

According to the current study authors, having a diagnostic test during the first trimester of pregnancy can allow caregivers to take efforts to delay or prevent premature birth.

An Easy to Do Cheek swab Test May Help Predict Preterm Birth Early
An Easy to Do Cheek swab Test May Help Predict Preterm Birth Early

In this study, which was published today in Scientific Reports, researchers discovered a signature in the cheek cells of moms and fathers of preterm newborns that could aid in the development of a test to predict whether the pregnancy would end prematurely.

A test like this could help prevent premature births and the numerous health consequences for infants by alerting medical providers to the need for early intervention efforts.

In the paper, scientists found that mothers of preterm newborns had significantly different epigenetic indicators than mothers of full-term babies. Although fathers had less biomarkers than mothers, they had enough to suggest a possible paternal influence in preterm birth.

“The signature we found was present in all the parents we analyzed,” says professor Michael Skinner, senior author. “This is likely to lead eventually to a very useful test. We used buccal cells, which are collected by a cheek swab. It’s very non-invasive and easy to do.”

Epigenetics refers to the biological variables and processes that influence how genes function. Epigenetic alterations, which can be caused by factors like toxicant exposure, poor nutrition, and alcohol use, can be inherited regardless of DNA sequence.

In this study, researchers discovered that preterm female babies contained more than 100 of these indicators, indicating that the proclivity to have a premature baby may be handed down. The signature’s transgenerational potential is also bolstered by the fact that it’s discovered in cheek cells, according to Skinner. If an epigenetic change is found in both sperm and ovum, it will be found in every cell of the baby’s body, even their cheek cells.

Researchers obtained cheek swabs from two groups of mother-father-child triads shortly after the babies were born for this investigation. The newborns in one group of 19 triads were born prematurely, whereas the babies in another group of 21 triads were carried to term. The signature was found in the mothers, dads, and female preterm kids, but not in the male preterm babies, according to the epigenetic study.

This is a “proof of concept” study, and the next step would be to test it with a larger group of parents and children, according to the researchers.

Skinner’s lab has already published research on other potential epigenetic biomarkers, such as one for autism and rheumatoid arthritis, paving the possibility for early diagnosis and treatment.

“Although we may not be able to fix the problem, if we know that it’s going to develop because of these diagnostics, we can treat it,” adds Skinner. “This could help with the transition from reactionary medicine to preventive medicine.”

Source: 10.1038/s41598-022-07262-9

Image Credit: Getty

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