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Judy Grant and her husband, Jeff, were arranging a summer excursion to the Grand Canyon when they found out their first child was due in July, two months after their planned trip.
Judy, a neonatal nurse practioner, pondered all the possible scenarios. It would take a helicopter two hours to get to her if she went into labor while on her trip.
She worried she'd have to cancel Jeff's 40th birthday trip. But then she heard about a blood test that can predict if a woman will deliver early.
"If I was at a higher risk of being preterm, it would be better to be at home where I would be close to my obstetrician and the hospital," Judy said.
The March of Dimes estimates that about 380,000 babies, or 1 in 10, are born early in the U.S. each year. Most preterm births infants born before 37 weeks of pregnancy begin unexpectedly and the cause is not known, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC reports that babies born too early may have cerebral palsy, developmental delays, or vision or breathing problems. The March of Dimes in 2014 reported that preterm births cost employers $12.7 million in additional medical costs for babies born in 2009.
Doctors often rely on two predictors to determine if a woman will deliver early: if she has a short cervix or if she has delivered early in previous pregnancies, said Greg Critchfield, chairman, president and CEO of Sera Prognostics, a Salt Lake City-based biotechnology company.
But those predictors only identify about 12 percent of all patients who will have preterm births, he added.
Then in 2008, Sera Prognostics was formed to identify more pregnancies at risk of being early.
Based on research out of Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, company employees began identifying proteins in the blood of pregnant women that could measure their chance of delivering early, Critchfield said.
They eventually settled on two that were accurate predictors. By drawing a woman's blood at 19 or 20 weeks into the pregnancy, Critchfield said the company can provide a woman the percentage chance she will have a preterm baby.
The average woman in the U.S. has a 7.3 percent chance of spontaneous preterm birth, he added.
Judy said she was in the normal range, and she delivered a healthy baby boy, Quinn, last month.
The test provided her reassurance throughout her pregnancy, she said. But for women with a higher risk of delivering early, the test, known as PreTRM, can provide doctors a pathway to bringing the pregnancy closer to term.
"The approach to treatment [for preterm birth] has been to wait until people have symptoms and then try to stop things," said M. Sean Esplin, company founder. The test "is a real game changer: We now have a tool that helps us identify women at the highest risk for preterm birth and gives us an opportunity to intervention earlier,"
If the test shows that a woman is at higher risk for delivering early, Critchfield said doctors can take a number of steps to extend the pregnancy.
They can, for example, monitor the pregnancy more closely or put a woman on various medications to help, he added.
"Babies are born too early all the time and the cost to society is enormous," he said. "If we're able to predict earlier in pregnancy who is at risk, then we can intervene earlier with the goal of improving the chances of the baby staying in utero and developing more normally."
But the test is far from mainstream at the moment. It's available across the country, but the company just began offering it this year.
The test currently is not covered by insurance and costs $945.
Critchfield anticipates insurance companies will cover it one day.
Judy is not sure if she and Jeff will have more kids, but they might consider doing the test again if they do.
"It depends on if insurance will cover it," Judy said. "It's a pretty expensive test."
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