£320k for research to predict premature births

Published: 20 December 2016 at 11:00

Baby in an incubator

New technology will use EMG signals to assess uterine activity during pregnancy

New technology which aims to save lives of premature babies by predicting when they might arrive will be jointly investigated by Anglia Ruskin University and international collaborators thanks to a US$400k (approximately £320k) grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the Beijing University of Technology. 

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Healthy Birth, Growth and Development Grand Challenge includes potential additional funding for successful projects.

The project will look to develop technology to predict the arrival of babies using uterine electromyography (EMG) – a medical technique traditionally used to evaluate and record the electrical activity produced by skeletal muscles. The proposed novel technique would analyse unique features in these signals to assess uterine activity during pregnancy, from which early preterm labour can be predicted.

It is estimated by the World Health Organisation that 15 million babies are born preterm every year. Preterm birth complications are the leading cause of death among children under five years old and were responsible for almost 1 million infant deaths in 2015.

Anglia Ruskin will partner with the Beijing University of Technology to carry out the project, and will also co-operate with Peking Union Medical College Hospital and Beijing Yes Medical Devices Co.

Dingchang Zheng, Professor of Medical Technology at Anglia Ruskin University, said: 

“Unsatisfactory and inaccurate prediction and diagnosis of preterm labour is an immense clinical challenge to doctors. The reported measurement techniques or devices for predicting preterm labour are either operator-dependent or suffer from an inherent lack of accuracy. 

“Guidelines of ‘Management of Preterm Labour’ from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have reviewed these techniques, and concluded that there is currently no reliable preterm prediction technique for routine clinical practice. 

“Therefore, there is an urgent clinical need to develop alternatives which can improve diagnosis and achieve satisfactory accuracy for routine clinical use. This requires challenging engineering research before any new techniques can be proposed. 

“Our proposal will tackle this problem, which aligns with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s new initiative ‘All Children Thriving’ to help mothers and children thrive in the developing world by ensuring a healthy birth for both mother and child.”

The funding has been allocated after the bid by the Beijing University of Technology won one of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Grand Challenges – Creating and Measuring Integrated Solutions for Healthy Birth, Growth and Development.