Preterm birth: can we do better?

Scott A. Sullivan, Medical University of South Carolina
Matt Hoffman, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Division of Education and Research for the Christiana Care Health System, Newark, DE.
John P. Elliott MD, Maternal Fetal Medicine at Valley Perinatal Services and Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix, AZ.


Preterm birth (PTB) remains the most serious complication in obstetrics and a substantial excess burden in US healthcare economics. The etiology of PTB is complex and likely has multiple physiological pathways. Unfortunately, current antenatal care screening methods have not been successful in predicting and, eventually, preventing PTB.

Although treatments such as progesterone, cerclage and pessary are available for patients with historical risk factors and shortened cervix, these treatments are not universally efficacious. Antenatal care is in great need of new prediction and prevention strategies.

The role of more global methods of screening and treatment is still undefined. Most women with clinical risk factors will not deliver early, and aggressive interventions in large segments of the population may not be warranted or cost effective. Furthermore, over half of women who experience PTB have no historical risk factors. Even second-trimester cervical length (CL) has only modest ability to predict which women will experience PTB.

There is thus a clear need to identify biomarkers that provide quantitative, individualized assessment of risk early in pregnancy that is specific for each individual woman. The ideal biomarkers would be indicative of the pathway leading to PTB, require no special testing equipment, have a low false positive and negative rate, and offer early identification, allowing adequate time to intervene. We need an aggressive and comprehensive approach to see a dramatic reduction in rates of preterm delivery in the U.S.