It could also help to reduce the global number of deaths and long-term complications caused by babies born prematurely – and costs less than current methods, according to the team behind the device.
Current technologies for assessing the likelihood of preterm birth, such as transvaginal ultrasound, are expensive and not always available – especially in poorer countries.
But the new technology uses a novel method to pick up on changes to the composition and structure of cervical tissue as a mother nears birth.
It provides a higher degree of accuracy in a hand-held and portable device, giving huge potential for export to low-income countries, scientists say.
Research carried out on Electrical Impedance Spectroscopy (EIS) at the University of Sheffield has led to the creation of the device, brought to market by EveryBaby, a UK based company backed by South Korean investment.
Dilly O’Anumba, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Sheffield and consultant at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trusts, said: “More than one in 10 babies are born too early and data has shown that preterm birth rates are increasing in many parts of the world.
“My team has spent over four years researching the potential for cervical Electrical Impedance Spectroscopy to improve the prediction of preterm birth.
“This pioneering technique will enable health care professionals to better prevent and manage preterm birth.
“It is not only more accurate than current methods but is significantly lower in cost making it more accessible, especially in low income communities where preterm birth rates are particularly high.
“EveryBaby’s eventual commercialisation of this technology could help to save countless lives both in the UK and across the globe.”
The hope is to be able to use the product in the NHS following current planned larger trials and regulatory approvals.
Around 15 million babies are born preterm every year, according to World Health Organisation estimates, with complications arising from premature births being the leading cause of death in infants under five years of age.
Long term complications can be severe, and many survivors face a lifetime of disability, including learning disabilities as well as visual and hearing impairments.
A study of 449 pregnant women, led by Professor O’Anumba and published in Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in August last year, suggested that EIS assessment predicts spontaneous preterm birth. The Northern Echo