Touching Tiny Lives: tackling big problems for little babies

newborn baby in hospitalOver 60,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK every year. Tragically, 1,500 of them die and those that survive can be left with lifelong conditions. Many more babies suffer debilitating illnesses or survive pregnancy complications that can leave them disabled.

Action Medical Research’s Touching Tiny Lives appeal aimed to tackle the problem of premature birth, reduce the number of babies affected by pregnancy complications and to improve the care of sick and vulnerable babies. During the six-year appeal, more than £6 million has been invested in no fewer than 60 Touching Tiny Lives research grants across the country.

The appeal recognised the importance of a healthy start in life. We are already seeing the first benefits and they are revealing the cusp of greater benefits that will follow. 

Although this appeal has come to an end the work does not stop there. Our ongoing programme of work funds research to help reduce the high rate of premature birth, prevent pregnancy complications that threaten babies' lives, and find the best ways to treat sick and vulnerable babies. 

Projects we have supported over the past six years include:

Preventing pregnancy complications

Two projects at Imperial College London looked at the pregnancy complication obstetric cholestasis to improve understanding of how the condition develops and its genetic variations, and how it causes stillbirth. Researchers discovered babies’ heart rhythms may be affected and that a drug called UDCA may help. Another study here made huge strides in improving MRI scans of unborn babies’ brains.

A Liverpool project showed that very forceful contractions of the uterus may be a cause of fetal distress during labour, and that this seems to be preserved from one pregnancy to the next. This could help doctors identify risk in women with a history of fetal distress, and take steps to protect the child. And a study in Edinburgh significantly increased understanding of how blood vessels behave differently in women with pre-eclampsia.

Tackling premature birth

Every year in the UK, about 60,000 babies are born prematurely, increasing their risk of death and disability. Teams in Newcastle, London, Nottingham, Manchester, Warwick and Glasgow have all furthered understanding of the complex factors involved in labour, identifying proteins and pathways important in regulating contractions. Their discoveries have pinpointed targets for novel therapies. 

Early labour may sometimes result from infection or inflammation in the womb. Work at King’s College London has yielded vital clues as to the mechanisms involved and has led to a subsequent project aiming to use markers of infection to develop a screening test to predict if a woman is at increased risk of early labour.

Treating sick and vulnerable babies

Many babies face illness while still very vulnerable. Small, premature babies may not handle milk well, developing severe bowel inflammation, called necrotising enterocolitis. A multi-centre trial produced preliminary results suggesting that starting premature babies’ milk feeds early is better for them. Another study showed that stem cells grown in the laboratory can form new nerves, and these can join with bowel tissue, which could help babies who have Hirschsprung’s disease, in which babies suffer bowel obstruction due to lack of nerve cells in the rectum.

A group in London has developed a revolutionary, computerised, screening tool, which could improve diagnosis of a potentially blinding condition affecting premature babies, retinopathy of prematurity. And a team in Nottingham is working on a new heart monitor to help resuscitate newborn babies. Following initial trials, the researchers have secured Medical Research Council funding for further tests. They hope the device will be in delivery rooms in a few years.