Halting Premature Labour | Action Medical Research | Children's Charity | Children's Charity

Halting premature labour

This research was completed on 31 December 2009

Published on 31 January 2007

About 50,000 babies are born prematurely each year in the UK.1,2,3,4 Those born very early are at risk of dying, or developing serious disabilities. Yet our attempts to halt premature labour are largely unsuccessful. Researchers are trying to find out what triggers labour, in the ultimate hope of developing ways to stop so many babies from being born too soon.

What's the problem and who does it affect?

Deadly disease and PVL. The dangers of premature birth

Up to 15% of all births happen prematurely – more than three weeks before the baby’s anticipated due date.5 Babies born very early are at increased risk of dying. Each year in the UK, some 3,000 babies die before reaching their first birthday, with prematurity being the biggest cause.6

Advances in technology and healthcare mean a premature baby’s chances of surviving are increasing, but their survival is coming at a price: we are seeing a corresponding increase in the proportion of babies who are developing health problems.5 These include serious, lifelong disabilities, such as deafness, blindness and cerebral palsy.

About half of premature births happen because the mother goes into labour too soon. The whole experience can be very shocking. Traumatised new parents can suddenly find their tiny baby, who wasn’t expected for months, is struggling to survive in intensive care with an uncertain future ahead.

Yet we don’t have any reliable treatments that can halt a mother’s labour. We don’t even fully understand the mechanisms that trigger it, whether premature or at full term.

What is the project trying to achieve?

What triggers labour?

The researchers working on this project hope to find out more about the factors that control when a baby is born. They aim to give us a clearer understanding of the molecular pathways that make a pregnant woman’s womb start contracting.

The researchers are paying particular attention to the role of a family of proteins called the phospholipase C enzymes. Preliminary data suggest that the levels of these proteins increase throughout pregnancy, reaching a peak around the time of birth. The proteins also seem to have a key role in the signalling pathways that control the contraction of smooth muscle - the wall of the womb contains smooth muscle, which contracts during labour. In this project, researchers are studying these two phenomena in greater detail, using sophisticated laboratory techniques.

The team is studying smooth muscle tissue taken, with consent, from women who are undergoing caesarean sections. Some will be in labour and others will not. Researchers will also take samples from women who aren’t pregnant, as they undergo a hysterectomy.

What are the researchers' credentials?

Project LeaderDr J S Lymn PhD, ILTHE
Project team
  • Dr Raheela N Khan PhD
  • Professor Stephen J Hill PhD
LocationInstitute of Cell Signalling, Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham and Academic Division of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, Derby City General Hospital, Derby
Other locations
  • Academic Division of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Derby City General Hospital, The University of Nottingham. Institute of Cell Signalling, Medical School, Queen’s Medical Centre, The University of Nottingham
DurationTwo years
Grant awarded31 October 2006
Start date1 June 2007
End date31 December 2009
Grant amount£104,072.00
Grant codeSP4177

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Dr Lymn has a long-standing interest in phospholipase C signalling in smooth muscle, while Dr Khan is a leading expert in the physiological processes occurring within the walls of the womb, and Professor Hill is an internationally renowned molecular pharmacologist. This combined expertise means that the team is uniquely and ideally placed to succeed in this research project.

The research will be carried out in the Institute of Cell Signalling at the University of Nottingham, which houses state-of-the-art technology.

Who stands to benefit from this research and how?

Finding antibiotics that combat PVL. Clues on how to stop premature labour

Researchers hope their work will give a much-needed boost to our understanding of the signalling pathways that control the onset of labour and the contraction of the womb.

In the longer term, they hope this increased understanding will help in the design of drugs that might prevent women from going into labour prematurely, or stop labour once it’s started. A better understanding of the signalling pathways that control labour would allows us to design drugs that target those pathways. The ability to treat premature labour effectively would reduce the number of babies who are born too early. This would bring significant cost benefits. The NHS reportedly spends nearly £40K on each baby weighing less than 1 kg while he, or she, is in the neonatal unit, with a total of over £70 million being spent each year on neonatal intensive care.7

Researchers hope that cutting the number of early births would mean fewer babies die, and fewer develop the devastating physical and mental disabilities suffered by many premature babies. The benefits to babies and their parents are clear.


  1. NHS Maternity Statistics, England: 2003-04; http://www.dh.gov.uk/assetRoot/04/10/70/61/04107061.pdf
  2. Birth statistics. Office for National Statistics. Review of the Registrar General on births and patterns of family building in England and Wales, 2004: http://www.statistics.gov.uk/downloads/theme_population/FM1_33/FM1_33.pdf
  3. Statistics library (Vital Events Reference Tables), General Register Office for Scotland: http://www.gro-scotland.gov.uk/files/05t4-1.pdf
  4. Registrar General Annual Report 2004 - Section 3 Births. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency: http://www.nisra.gov.uk/demography/default.asp?cmsid=20_22_28&cms=demogr...
  5. Slattery MM and Morrison JJ. Preterm delivery. The Lancet, 2002, 360:1489-1497.
  6. Live births, stillbirths and infant deaths, 1976-2004: (England and Wales): Health Statistics Quarterly 27.
  7. Petrou S. Economic consequences of preterm birth and low birthweight. British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 2003, 110 (Suppl 20) 17-23.
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