Up to half of premature births could be prevented if women were simply tested for harmful bacteria, scientists say.
Researchers found that a new technique could identify the risk at routine check-ups, helping to ensure swift treatment.
Premature birth is the biggest cause of death for young children worldwide.
Scientists from a charity led by fertility expert Prof Robert Winston found that a new swab test could check if women were carrying potentially harmful bacteria in their reproductive tract.
Such conditions, which produce no symptoms, cause up to half of premature births, research suggests.
Scientists from Genesis Research Trust are now testing a new remedy to prevent such cases, by giving women supplements which replace the dangerous microbes with “good bacteria”.
The trials are an attempt to limit the use of needless drugs in pregnancy, amid concern that the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in women whose waters break early in pregnancy kills “good” bacteria and allows growth of harmful bacteria in some women.
Prematurity is the biggest cause of the death of infants worldwide, and results in many babies being brain-damaged or severely disabled in adult life.
Researchers behind the test - which gives results in minutes - said it could also save the NHS millions of pounds a year, given that most premature babies will spend much of their early lives in incubators.
It follows research by the same team which suggests that infection of the reproductive tract by harmful bacteria – a condition which produces no symptoms - is a cause for up to half of premature births. Those findings came from a study of 337 pregnant woman seen at Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea Hospital and Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.
60,000 premature babies are born every year in the UK and the incidence of such births has changed litle in recent years.
As well as being the leading cause of death for children under five, premature babies, those born before 37 weeks, are at risk of life-long health issues. In the UK, premature birth complications account for 1,400 child deaths a year - more than double the number in France or Italy.
Scientists said the new technique could reduce these numbers “dramatically”.
Doctor David MacIntyre, leading this research at Genesis Research Trust, said: “The possibility of reducing the number of babies born prematurely is a major breakthrough.
Whilst studies are continuing, the test we have developed is quick, simple and has every potential of being adopted into mainstream medicine in the UK and beyond. Doing so will not only enable more parents to hold a healthy happy child of their own, but will also reduce costs to the health system due to fewer babies being born with life limiting conditions to treat and manage.”
Professor Robert Winston, the trust’s chairman said: “Genesis Research Trust works with world-class scientists and doctors to carry out research that we believe will make the most difference to the millions of people in the UK who are struggling to become parents.
“Our supporters have given us funding which has allowed for discoveries like the one we’re talking about today. But, it’s also clear that the general public simply isn’t aware of how much more work there is still left to do in this area. We believe that with more funding we can not only support those who are suffering the pain of being unable to have their own child, but also reduce the number of children who die after premature birth.”
Professor Andrew Shennan, Professor of Obstetrics, Kings College London, said that while the group had created a new test to identify bacteria, it was not yet established whether this could predict preterm birth.
He said: “Treating abnormal bacteria, with new ‘good’ bacteria is not a new concept, and as yet has little evidence of benefit. It is rare for the knowledge of a test, even a good one to quickly translate into improved outcomes. This might be a useful bedside test in the future to allow quicker identification of women at risk. How to treat these women remains to be established.”