The results suggest that elevated levels of inflammatory biomarkers called cytokines small protein molecules that transmit signals within the immune system are an early risk factor for premature birth and infant lung and brain injuries. Screening pregnant women for high cytokine levels and stressful social factors such as family violence, poverty or substance abuse could detect women at highest risk for poor outcomes, said Julie Hofheimer, Ph.D., lead author of the study and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"This study suggests we may be able to identify women at risk at a time when earlier treatment has the potential to prevent later problems," Hofheimer said. The researchers presented their findings on May 3, 2004, at the Pediatric Academic Societies' annual meeting in San Francisco. The study was sponsored by the National institutes of Health.
Most encouraging is that elevated cytokine levels can be detected from blood samples routinely collected during prenatal care, Hofheimer said. Similarly, information about social stressors and substance use are commonly collected by prenatal care providers.
Inflammatory cytokines are a critical part of the body's attempt to respond to and cope with internal challenges such as infections and hypertension, as well as external immune challenges associated with substance abuse and stress.
"Certain groups of inflammatory biomarkers become elevated in response to both biological and psychological stressors, and they appear to act in cooperative ways that increase the risk for babie
Contact: Becky Oskin
Duke University Medical Center