BACKGROUND - Preterm birth (PTB), or birth before 37 weeks of gestation, is the leading cause of newborn death worldwide. PTB is a critical area of scientific study not only due to its worldwide toll on human lives and economies, but also due to our limited understanding of its pathogenesis and, therefore, its prevention. This systematic review and meta-analysis synthesizes the landscape of PTB transcriptomics research to further our understanding of the genes and pathways involved in PTB subtypes.
METHODS - We evaluated published genome-wide pregnancy studies across gestational tissues and pathologies, including those that focus on PTB, by performing a targeted PubMed MeSH search and systematically reviewing all relevant studies.
RESULTS - Our search yielded 2,361 studies on gestational tissues including placenta, decidua, myometrium, maternal blood, cervix, fetal membranes (chorion and amnion), umbilical cord, fetal blood, and basal plate. Selecting only those original research studies that measured transcription on a genome-wide scale and reported lists of expressed genetic elements identified 93 gene expression, 21 microRNA, and 20 methylation studies. Although 30 % of all PTB cases are due to medical indications, 76 % of the preterm studies focused on them. In contrast, only 18 % of the preterm studies focused on spontaneous onset of labor, which is responsible for 45 % of all PTB cases. Furthermore, only 23 of the 10,993 unique genetic elements reported to be transcriptionally active were recovered 10 or more times in these 134 studies. Meta-analysis of the 93 gene expression studies across 9 distinct gestational tissues and 29 clinical phenotypes showed limited overlap of genes identified as differentially expressed across studies.
CONCLUSIONS - Overall, profiles of differentially expressed genes were highly heterogeneous both between as well as within clinical subtypes and tissues as well as between studies of the same clinical subtype and tissue. These results suggest that large gaps still exist in the transcriptomic study of specific clinical subtypes as well in the generation of the transcriptional profile of well-studied clinical subtypes; understanding the complex landscape of prematurity will require large-scale, systematic genome-wide analyses of human gestational tissues on both understudied and well-studied subtypes alike.