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Big data can help the smallest babies

baby with little hand

Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital have developed an algorithm that can accurately estimate a newborn’s gestational age to within one to two weeks.

Dr. Kumanan Wilson and his team have a novel approach to finding out how often babies are born preterm in low-resource countries. They’re using data collected from routine newborn blood tests and they’ve received nearly US $1 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support their research.

Dr. Kumanan Wilson (left) and Dr. Pranesh Chakraborty are using newborn blood tests.

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

Preterm birth is a leading cause of death among children under age 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. 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 that can accurately estimate 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.”

baby with adult hand

Dr. Wilson’s team originally developed the algorithm and tested its accuracy using data from Ontario newborns. The team is currently testing the algorithm using newborn data from Bangladesh, Zambia, China and the Philippines.

This new funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will allow the investigators to pilot the algorithm in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and provide preterm birth estimates to the countries that are taking part. Families that participate in the project will also have access to screening for treatable genetic disorders. The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, Newborn Screening Ontario and Stanford University are collaborators on the project.

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


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