For the first time, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has identified six key gene regions linked to preterm births.
According to CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus, the findings from the genomewide association study are "enormous."
"Now we can identify who's going to be preterm," Agus said Thursday on "CBS This Morning." Almost 10 percent of babies in the U.S. are born preterm, defined as before 37 weeks in the womb, and it is the leading cause of death in children under 5.
Based on data from about 50,000 women – more than 44,000 of whom had provided saliva samples to DNA genetic testing company 23andMe – researchers found that the lining of the uterus played a "larger-than-expected" role, and the mineral selenium, which is found in certain nuts, meats and greens, could impact pregnancy length as well.
Agus described the findings as a "Rosetta Stone" that could help doctors understand and respond to the risks in a new way.
"So instead of one-size-fits-all, instead of waiting and, 'Oh my gosh, I'm in preterm labor. Let me rush to the hospital,' we're going to know in advance what's going to happen. And so knowledge is key," Agus said.
The study had a number of limitations, including the fact that it included only women of European ancestry, so it's unclear if the same genetic findings would apply to women of other ancestries.
But with the knowledge from this initial research, Agus was optimistic about the potential for future medical developments targeting certain types of cells through gene therapy.
"In this case knowing one of them is a uterine protein, for example, that we may be able to alter to allow a woman to go to full term can radically change the maternal and neonatal health," Agus said.