Around one in ten pregnant women will go into preterm or early labour before 37 weeks’ of pregnancy. Many of these will be first time mums. For an obstetrician, preterm labour is a confounding problem. For parents, it’s a scary and unpredictable prospect.

A/Prof Megan Di Quinzio is leading the Predicting Preterm Labour study, or PPeTaL study, to develop a reliable test to identify the women who are at risk of preterm labour. With Dr Harry Georgiou, Professor Shaun Brennecke and commercial partner, Carmentix Australia, along with a team of research midwives and scientists, A/Prof Di Quinzio is working to create a routine swab test to let doctors know which expectant mothers to keep an eye on.

While there are known risk factors for preterm labour including some medical conditions like a short cervix or a family history of early delivery, and some lifestyle factors, like illicit drug use, many women who are on track for a term delivery will go into spontaneous preterm labour. A routine test administered between 20 and 24 weeks could be a game-changer for these women and their babies.

When it comes to preterm labour the days and weeks are critical. A baby born before 28 weeks gestation is at risk of serious conditions like blindness or cerebral palsy. Even after this point a preterm baby risks developmental issues and delays.

The swab test will look for protein markers which have been identified in women who went into early labour. A positive test will mean that doctors can begin close monitoring, with an emphasis on delaying labour as long as possible and making sure that the necessary support is in place for a preterm delivery. This could mean moving them to a hospital with appropriate neonatal support, or using treatment options like steroids to help the baby’s lungs develop more fully.

It’s taken A/Prof Di Quinzio fifteen years of work to get to this point and she’s pleased that things are proceeding at pace: “We’re really hoping that we’ll have a test on the market in three years. It’s exciting, we’re moving ahead in great leaps and bounds.”

This is testament to the work of the team, and the contribution of every woman who has already provided protein samples to the study: “There are so many women who have participated over the last fifteen years. I cannot thank them enough for everything that they’ve provided.”