Participants, donations needed as UCSF launches largest early pregnancy COVID-19 study

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Our local medical community is working hard to Build a Better Bay Area. It continues to be at the forefront of COVID-19 research.

Because the pandemic is only a few months old, everything doctors know about how the virus affects mothers and their babies is based on infections identified later in pregnancy. With the exception of babies delivered prematurely because their mother's were too sick to carry their babies to full-term, the outcomes for newborns born to infected mothers have been positive.

But, nobody knows how a COVID-19 infection early in pregnancy affects pregnant women, or how it affects the baby from the newborn stage through early childhood development. This is what a team of UCSF doctors have set out to discover through the ASPIRE study, which stands for assessing the safety of pregnancy in the coronavirus pandemic.

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"We know that infections acquired during pregnancy can have an impact on a fetus, or on a newborn, or even into childhood," said Dr. Elizabeth Rogers, a UCSF neonatologist.

"Things like Zika, or CMV, Herpes," can affect fetuses and babies, explained Dr. Heather Huddleston, a UCSF OBGYN. "It became very apparent to us that many women over the next year or two could be infected with COVID-19 and we felt that there was really no information out there about what this might do during pregnancy."

So Dr. Huddleston and Dr. Rogers helped launch the largest early pregnancy COVID study. Participants fill out a questionnaire, send daily symptom updates on their phone, and weekly finger-prick blood samples.

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"Our goal is to recruit 10,000 women all across this country over the next year," said Huddleston. "At the end of the study, we'll be able to look at all those blood tests that were done all across pregnancy and identify who's developed antibodies to the virus and be able to pinpoint when in their pregnancy they developed those antibodies and then be able to look at what the outcomes of the pregnancy were."

Once the babies in the study are born, Rogers said they'll be following the babies and monitoring their health. "We're very concerned that infants might grow differently in utero and may have an impact particularly on their brain health."

To be eligible for the study, women must be 4 to 10 weeks pregnant.

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"I'm 8 weeks along now," said Christin New, who lives in Redwood City and just signed up to participate in ASPIRE.

"We're going to be testing our blood for COVID-19, but we don't actually get those results. So I won't actually know if I'm ever positive, in so far as being part of this study. But to me what's more important, is that I can add one little drop in the bucket of knowledge that can help potentially bring about better care for mothers-to-be and babies."

Because there is no federal funding for early pregnancy studies, ASPIRE has largely been funded through donations and crowdfunding. The study is not yet fully funded, but the research has begun, since waiting would delay outcomes and valuable information.

ASPIRE has several hundred participants, but is still looking to sign up thousands of pregnant women from communities across the U.S.

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