A woman has a higher risk of delivering a premature baby if a relative has also given birth too early, and there may be a way to determine risk by analyzing genes, researchers said on Monday.
Premature birth is “the No. 1 problem in obstetrics today and the incidence continues to grow,” said Dr. Kenneth Ward, chairman of the department of obstetrics-gynecology at the University of Hawaii School of Medicine and lead author of a study using genetic databases compiled by Utah’s Mormon population.
“There is an underappreciated genetic component to the problem,” he said at a meeting here of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “As we save more and more premature babies of the last generation, they are having babies of their own.”
The rate of premature birth increased 29 percent between 1981 and 2002, and today one in eight babies born in the United States arrives too soon, according to the March of Dimes.
These babies can face weeks or even months in the neonatal intensive care unit and have an increased risk of death and serious medical complications.
Searched genealogy database
Ward’s team took family histories from 220 Utah women who had given birth to a single infant after less than 36 weeks of pregnancy, compared with the normal 40-week gestation. They identified 28 women with at least 5 close relatives who also had pre-term deliveries.
They then searched a 75-year genealogy database documenting relationships between some 17.5 million ancestors and 3.5 million descendants of the Utah founder population.
They found that women who had given birth prematurely were likely to be related at least distantly to another woman who had gone into labor too early.
“This implies that there are genetic alleles that contribute to the rate of pre-term labor,” Ward said.
He said the families identified in the study will be valuable for identifying the genes associated with pre-term delivery and a genome-wide scan is now underway.