Technology is being developed in Sheffield to identify which mothers are at risk of pre-term birth, and so help lower perinatal mortality.

A small pencil-tip probe has been developed by Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Sheffield that identifies the changes in the cervix prior to labour.

Dilly Anumba, a clinician and academic that led the research, said knowing who was at risk is critical.

“Premature delivery is still a very important cause of perinatal death, or death of babies around the time of birth, and it’s also an important cause of childhood disease, disability or neurological impairment.”

Anumba said the current techniques to identify women at risk produce high false positive rates, “therefore a lot of women probably end up with treatment and interventions they do not need”.

“We need better means of identifying those truly at risk”.

With 50,000 premature babies born annually in England and Wales, Anumba said this is a “huge health burden” on the NHS.

If women were identified sooner they could be transferred to a hospital with special facilities, or have treatment to artificially extend the pregnancy.

Anumba said this research would also reduce “a lot of unnecessary expense to the taxpayer” as it would lessen avoidable hospital admission costs.

The £792,753 research project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research and Medical Research Council. Anumba believes the device will be in clinical use in three years.

This initial version has been tested on 500 women.

Also this month, Sheffield Teaching announced it has been chosen to be a virtual specialist surgical centre, one of 24 in an European Reference Network.

Using online forums surgeons and medical experts in urogenital disorders will discuss the rare diseases, in the hope to lead to further research and specialist medical training.

Chris Chapple, consultant urologist at the trust, said in a statement that the trust hopes “to be able to attract vital funding, training and research which could make all the difference to patients who cannot undertake activities we normally take for granted as a result of these complex, and often highly embarrassing disorders”.