Every one in nine babies is born too early here in Tennessee.

Now there's a medical breakthrough, a device created in our own backyard, that Vanderbilt doctors say could be a game changer.

Tara Thomas' son, Gabriel, was born at just 26 weeks. Now, at 32 weeks, he weighs 2 pounds and 13 ounces.

"He'll grab my finger sometimes and just latch on, and I'll try to move my hand, and he's like, you're not going anywhere," Thomas said.

Thomas spends most of her day at the NICU at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

"I like to be here as much as possible. I like to change his diaper and do his temperature," she said.

Gabriel is one of 15 million babies born too early every year. Preterm birth is the leading cause of infant deaths.

Dr. Anita Mahadevan-Jansen, professor of biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University, created the "Raman System," which is a probe that allows doctors to see the cervix and helps to predict preterm birth.

"There's a little fiber optic in there, that's a camera, a fiber-based camera just like they use in CSI," Mahadevan-Jansen said.

The camera delivers light and collects a signal, telling doctors what's going on chemically, and takes measurements detecting changes in the cervix.

"If you can find what's going on and identify that really early, you can dramatically change how pregnancies and preterm births can be affected," Mahadevan-Jansen said.

This new technology could soon transform care of the mother while she's pregnant, potentially saving lives of precious blessings - miracles like sweet little Gabriel.

Vanderbilt neonatologist Dr. Jeff Reese says the tool is expected to help find the moms at high risk of preterm labor and catch them early, so they can be treated early and prevent preterm birth.

"This is a completely unexplored area of biology and research at the bedside that could really help moms that we haven't had before, so we think this is going to be a big advance," Reese said.

It's a tool that Thomas says can't come soon enough.

The device is currently in clinical studies. Any pregnant woman receiving prenatal care at Vanderbilt who is interested in participating can contact study coordinator Laura Masson at vupregnancystudy@gmail.com.

Copyright 2019 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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