Inflammation & Preventing Premature Birth | Action Medical Research | Children's Charity

Could blocking inflammation be the key to preventing premature birth?

This research was completed on 30 April 2010

Published on 31 January 2008

The leading cause of death in babies is premature birth.1 Recent studies suggest that inflammation plays a key role in the onset of preterm labour. By studying the molecules and receptors involved, researchers hope to reveal better ways to stop babies being born too soon.

What's the problem and who does it affect?

Premature birth puts babies at risk

Around 50,000 babies are born prematurely each year in the UK.2,3,4,5 These babies, especially those born very prematurely, are more at risk of dying or becoming seriously ill.

Many premature babies must spend weeks or even months in hospital in intensive care, even when the outcome is good. Sadly, their premature birth can also lead to blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy and developmental delay – disabilities which can bring a lifetime of suffering. The babies’ parents, siblings and other close relatives can be profoundly affected by the stress of caring for them.

More research is desperately needed.

Recent studies suggest that inflammation is important in triggering preterm labour. But until we understand exactly what this involves, we can’t find a way to prevent it happening.

With limited funding from the government or larger charities, researchers rely on charities like Action Medical Research to support studies into premature birth.

What is the project trying to achieve?

The role of inflammation in labour

The researchers will study the role of inflammation in the onset of labour. They will concentrate on the part played by inflammatory receptors called Toll-like receptors.

These receptors signal “danger” messages from infection and tissue death. Researchers think these receptors might also play a key role in triggering preterm labour. They suspect that by stopping these receptors from working, preterm birth could be prevented.

Researchers will take blood samples, and samples from the womb muscle, from pregnant women having a caesarean section. They will study if and how blocking the Toll-like receptors stops the womb muscle contracting.

What are the researchers' credentials?

Project LeaderProfessor J E Norman MD FRCOG
Project team
  • Professor Iain B McInnes PhD, MRCP
  • Professor Maggie M Harnett PhD
  • Professor William Martin, PhD
  • Dr Scott Nelson, MRCOG PhD
LocationSection of Reproductive and Maternal Medicine, Division of Developmental Medicine and Division of Inflammation, Infection and Immunity, Glasgow Royal Infirmary in conjunction with Division of Infection, Inflammation and Immunity, Western Infirmary, Glasgow and Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow
Other locations
  • Western Infirmary, Glasgow.
  • Division of Inflammation, Infection and Immunity, University of Glasgow, Glasgow Royal Infirmary.
  • Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow.
DurationTwo years
Grant awarded31 October 2007
Start date1 May 2008
End date30 April 2010
Grant amount£120,338.00
Grant codeSP4275

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This project is a unique collaboration between immunologists with expertise in inflammation, pharmacologists with expertise in smooth muscle contraction and clinicians with a research interest in preterm labour.

Professor Jane Norman is a leading expert in labour. She has published papers on seminal studies into how labour starts and on clinical trials that will improve the health of pregnant women and their babies. She is regularly invited to give talks on labour, both in the UK and internationally, and has edited a book on the subject.

The team has access to excellent facilities and specialised equipment within Glasgow Royal Infirmary, where over 5,500 babies are born each year.

Who stands to benefit from this research and how?

Hopes of new treatments that block inflammation

This study should reveal a great deal of fundamental information on how premature labour starts – on the role of inflammation and how it might be prevented.

Researchers believe this important new information will lead to better ways to stop babies being born too soon. They hope to identify the best way to prevent inflammation. And they plan use their extra knowledge to develop novel treatments.3

Saving lives, preventing disability

In the UK, where 50,000 babies are born prematurely each year, potential benefits are enormous.2 This research could, in fact, improve the health of babies worldwide. In developing countries, where neonatal intensive care facilities are harder to come by, babies have even more to gain from avoiding an early birth.

As well as saving babies’ lives and avoiding disability, preventing premature birth will also save the NHS money. Babies who sadly go on to develop long-term problems will sometimes need specialised care for the rest of their lives. The financial cost of looking after a profoundly disabled child for the duration of his or her life can be extremely high.


  1. Office for National Statistics. Mortality statistics: Childhood, infant and perinatal. Series DH3 no. 38. Table 8 (p93): Click for statisitcs (pdf)
  2. NHS Maternity Statistics, England: 2003-04; Click for statistics (pdf)
  3. Birth statistics. Office for National Statistics. Review of the Registrar General on births and patterns of family building in England and Wales, 2004: Click for statistics (pdf)
  4. Statistics library (Vital Events Reference Tables), General Register Office for Scotland: Click for statistics (pdf)
  5. Registrar General Annual Report 2004 - Section 3 Births. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency: Click for statistics
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