Using big data to help the smallest babies – Canadian researchers use newborn blood tests to identify preterm children in low-resource countries

March 23, 2018

Researchers from The Ottawa Hospital, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and the University of Ottawa have received nearly US $1 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to find out how often babies are born preterm in low-resource countries. Their novel approach uses data collected from routine newborn blood tests.

Preterm birth is a leading cause of death among children under the age of five. Knowing how often babies are born preterm is essential for developing and evaluating health programs and policies. However, many low-resource countries do not have reliable data on this issue.

Dr. Kumanan Wilson and Dr. Steven Hawken are pioneering a solution for measuring preterm birth rates using newborn blood samples spotted onto paper. In Canada and other countries this practice is routinely used to screen for genetic diseases and metabolic disorders, but using it to assess preterm birth is new. Using these blood spots and big data analysis, the team has developed an algorithm capable of accurately estimating gestational age to within one to two weeks.

“We’re using metabolic fingerprints – unique patterns in specific molecules found in the blood – to help estimate gestational age,” said Dr. Wilson, an internal medicine specialist and senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa. “If it works, this could be crucial to global efforts to reduce preterm birth and improve newborn health.”

Dr. Wilson’s team originally derived and validated the algorithm using data from Ontario newborns. This work has been published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and EBioMedicine. The team is currently testing the algorithm using newborn data from Bangladesh, Zambia, China and the Philippines. This new funding will allow the investigators to pilot the algorithm in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and provide preterm birth estimates to participating countries.

This project is a collaboration with Dr. Gary Darmstadt of Stanford University and Dr. Pranesh Chakraborty of Newborn Screening Ontario and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute. Other researchers from The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa who are involved in this project include Drs. Steven Hawken, Beth Potter, Mark Walker, Julian Little and Malia Murphy.

Dr. Darmstadt’s team will select and manage new international sites for the project, while Dr. Chakraborty will lead the analysis of the newborn samples. Dr. Wilson and his team will apply the algorithm and manage the results. Families that participate in the project will also have access to screening for treatable genetic disorders.

This new grant (worth US $948,502) follows two previous grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the Ottawa team (worth US $1.4 million and US $100,000). The foundation has also awarded US $2 million to Dr. Darmstadt and his team for their part of the project.

See related article “How a 50-Year-Old Drop of Blood Helps Solve an Urgent Global Health Challenge” from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dr. Wilson leads The Ottawa Hospital’s mHealth Lab, which is supported by donations to The Ottawa Hospital.

Photo caption: Dr. Kumanan Wilson (left) and Dr. Pranesh Chakraborty (right) are using newborn blood tests to identify preterm children in low-resource countries.

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