Reporter 454, 19 June 2000

Predictor device shows mothers when the time is ripe

Mothers-to-be may soon have an accurate warning of exactly when they are going into labour. A hand-held device is being created which will be able to ‘read’ how close the crucial stage is, within hours or even weeks of its arrival.

Traditional technique: Nigel Simpson, below, still uses a hands-on approach but is developing a hi-tech alternative to monitor labour

The product, currently under development in the University, should also help guard against one of the commonest and most dangerous complications of childbirth: the onset of labour before a pregnancy has reached its full term.

Research in the School of Medicine has led to the design of a system to monitor advanced pregnancies, non-invasively measuring electrical pulses in the uterus which signal conclusively that labour has started, or is soon to start, before the baby is ready to be born.

Dr Nigel Simpson, based in the obstetrics and gynaecology department at Leeds General Infirmary, developed the measurement technique in collaboration with Professor James Walker of St James’s University Hospital and colleagues in medical physics there. Dr Simpson already employs it, using a PC-mounted software package. He now is involved in the design of a much more compact device, to be available over-the-counter, to provide women with potentially life-saving early warnings.

"Just as an electrocardiogram works by sensing electrical activity in the heart, this approach measures uterine electrical activity, which changes significantly ahead of the onset of labour," he said. "At present, it seems possible to use these changes to predict the onset of labour within a window of about two days. We hope, in due course, to be able to signal it as much as a fortnight in advance."

Existing methods of identifying the onset of labour, based on monitoring mechanical activity or applying biochemical tests, are not wholly reliable. Trials of the new device on women at full term have indicated that it detects labour with reasonable certainty.

The prototype system is being used in an extended trial to identify what changes occur in electrical activity up to one or two weeks in advance of labour.

"Ultimately, we intend to develop a portable device, no bigger than a Walkman," said Dr Simpson. "That is, of course, still some way off. It will take much more extensive trials over the next year or two to establish its accuracy, test the data from our pilot study and scale down the device."

The University’s technology transfer company, ULIS, is helping to develop the system’s commercial potential.

"There has already been a lot of interest shown by retailers. The potential market is enormous - all pregnant women in the developed world and all hospitals," Dr Simpson added.

"All our data to date indicates that labour is a predictable event. Giving women more knowledge as to when the event is about to happen empowers them."

Two versions of the device are being developed, one designed for use by hospital staff and another for women to use at home. The importance of recognising the onset of labour is underlined by the fact that one in ten pregnancies ends before the full term. Premature delivery is linked to eight out of ten infant deaths.

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