Ultrasounds May Help to Identify the Risk of Premature Birth

Receiving an ultrasound is an exciting milestone in a pregnancy. Parents are able to get their first glimpse at their child through this common, but still remarkable, technology. Ultrasounds allow doctors to see the body, movement, and blood flow of a fetus. And now, because of a technique being developed by University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) nurse researchers, ultrasounds may help identify women who are at risk of giving birth prematurely.

There are currently no established methods for predicting preterm births.

The UIC researchers received a $2.84 million grant from the National institute of Child Health and Human Development to advance their technique for predicting premature births. The study will follow 800 women, who will be divided into three groups: women who have previously given birth prematurely, women with a shortened cervix (which is a warning sign for a possible preterm birth), and a low-risk control group. The researchers will give ultrasound examinations at 20 and 24 weeks.

Detecting collagen changes may be the key to early detection of a shortened cervix.

Barbara McFarlin, leader of the study and professor of nursing, has discovered a clever and noninvasive way to predict those at risk for giving birth prematurely. By using ultrasound detection on a microscopic level, McFarlin and her team can observe changes in the collagen of a woman’s cervix. By recognizing these changes, McFarlin can predict which women will have a shortened cervix and, therefore, a higher risk of a preterm birth.

“At 17 to 20 weeks of pregnancy we were able to predict who was going to deliver preterm,” said McFarlin. “We found that before the length of the cervix shortens, the microscopic tissue structure has to change and the collagen remodels.”

The impact of early detection of preterm births could be enormous.

“By recognizing which women are at risk, health care professionals could provide early interventions, treatments and closely monitor these treatments to prevent preterm birth or to improve health outcomes,” McFarlin said.

In the U.S. alone, there are almost half a million premature births each year. These babies have an increased risk for behavioral, neurological, and physical development issues. Being able to detect at-risk moms early on gives doctors more time prescribe progesterone — a natural hormone that can reduce the chance of a preterm birth by 40 percent.

The team will also study the effects (and non-effects) of progesterone.

McFarlin wants to understand why the hormone only helps some women carry their babies to full term. By learning more about how progesterone works, the researchers may find new insights into other treatments.

The study will be conducted over a five-year period and could yield important information for doctors and other medical professionals. Premature births cost the healthcare system approximately $30 billion per year and cause developmental problems for preterm babies. If McFarlin’s team can develop and teach a way to accurately predict preterm births, her team could spare millions of families from this hardship and save billions of dollars.


UIC researcher using imaging to identify women at risk of giving birth prematurely.” UIC. UIC Today, 23 Jan. 2018. Web. 1 Feb. 2018.

Using imaging to identify women at risk of giving birth prematurely.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 January 2018. Web. 1 Feb. 2018.