Touching Lives - July 2008

Looking for clues to early birth

The work funded by Action Medical Research could have implications for thousands of women — in Britain 50,000 babies are born prematurely each year.

Professor Jane Norman and a team at the University of Glasgow have been looking at the link between the activation of white blood cells in the mother and early labour, studying women at Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

In normal labour white blood cells are activated and migrate to the womb during the delivery process. But sometimes this happens too soon and the team has shown that white blood cells in the mother’s circulation become much more active as labour starts — which could be a useful predictor of when a baby is likely to be born prematurely.

Professor Norman says, “Our work has looked at how white blood cells in the mother’s blood can increase in number and become more active, rushing to where they are needed when labour starts.

“These white blood cells release substances which help them respond to external ‘danger’ signals and attract other white blood cells to them. While this activation may be helpful in normal labour, ^it could be that activation at the wrong time plays a role in starting a preterm labour^.”

With a better understanding of the role the white blood cells play, tests could be developed to identify women in the early stages of preterm labour and preventative treatments could be developed. Conversely, it is possible that treatments to stimulate an overdue labour could also result.

Professor Norman is now working on another Action Medical Research-funded project looking at the role of infection in premature labour.

This work was partly funded by The Hugh Fraser Foundation