New DHA test could help more mothers carry babies to full term

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Getty Images / Patrick Telemann
Getty Images / Patrick Telemann
Omega-3s testing firm OmegaQuant has launched a new test aimed at lessening the risk of preterm births by providing expectant mothers with information on their DHA blood levels.

DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is, along with EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) among the essential fatty acids found in fish oil, krill and algal oils. DHA has many functions in the body, including helping to support the proper development of an infant’s brain.

Recent research has however turned up an additional benefit of DHA. Mothers with low levels of this fatty acid in their blood run the risk of preterm births, which can have grave consequences for the future health of the newborn.

Kristina Jackson, PhD, helped develop the test along with her father, William Harris, PhD, who is the founder of OmegaQuant as well as a faculty member at the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls.

Demonstrated risks

Jackson said women with low DHA levels are at a 10 fold greater risk of early preterm birth. This is defined as birth before 34 weeks of gestation, which implies a host of grave complications for the newborn.

“There are a couple of big studies that motivated us to make this test,”​ Jackson said. “One was from Cochrane that was published last year.”

That study found that adequate DHA:

  • lowers the risk of having a premature baby (less than 37 weeks) by 11% (from 134 per 1000 to 119 per 1000 births)
  • lowers the risk of having an early premature baby (less than 34 weeks) by 42% (from 46 per 1000 to 27 per 1000 births)
  • reduces the risk of having a small baby (less than 2500g) by 10%.

Few options to prevent preterm births

“There are not many options for preventing premature birth, so these findings are very important for pregnant women, babies and the health professionals who care for them,” ​said Cochrane pregnancy and childbirth lead author Associate Professor Philippa Middleton. “We don’t yet fully understand the causes of premature labour, so predicting and preventing early birth has always been a challenge. This is one of the reasons omega-3 supplementation in pregnancy is of such great interest to researchers around the world.” 

In addition to the health questions, Jackson noted that a preterm birth can end up costing $50,000 or more in hospital and doctor bills, or more than 10 times what the average birth costs.

The new test, which costs $50, uses the same fingertip pinprick method as does the company’s existing Omega-3 Index test. It focuses on DHA to make the picture clearer for pregnant women and their caregivers.

“The target level is 5% DHA,”​ Jackson said. “That translates to about a 6% Omega-3 Index.”

Essential nutrient for pregnancy?

Jackson said with the new information, and the easy availability of the test, paying attention to omega-3 levels could become as much of a recommendation for pregnant women as folate is. Folate has a documented role in preventing neural tube defects in fetuses.

“With folate we fortified our food because we were so convinced by the evidence. This is not to that level yet. But we are hoping that this blood test can help practitioners get an idea of  where women are and at least motivate them to meet recommendations,”​ Jackson said.

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