Antioxidants to Help Premature Babies | Action Medical Research | Children's Charity

Premature birth: could a natural antioxidant protect vulnerable babies?

This research was completed on 15 January 2015

Published on 18 January 2012

Tragically, around 1,500 babies die in the UK each year after being born too soon.1-3,a,b Many others who survive a very early birth develop lifelong problems such as cerebral palsy, blindness and learning difficulties. Many of the complications that premature babies face are thought to result from a sudden increase in oxygen levels that occurs after birth. Professor Gordon Smith, of Cambridge University, is investigating whether one of the body’s own antioxidants has the potential to protect babies.

What is the problem and who does it affect?

Over 60,000 babies are born too soon every year in the UK.4,5,c A very early birth puts babies in particular danger. Premature birth is in fact the biggest killer of babies in the UK and those who survive are at risk of developing life-long disabilities.6

“After going through the trauma of birth, it is very hard for the parents of premature babies to see their newborn child battling for life,” says Professor Gordon Smith. “Very tiny babies often need help breathing, eating and fighting infections. They are at risk of bleeds to the brain, along with many other complications.”

“We think that many of the problems that premature babies experience are linked to a sudden exposure to higher oxygen levels that occurs after birth,” explains Professor Smith. “Unlike babies born at full term, premature babies are not prepared for this increase in oxygen levels.”

Although oxygen is essential for life, sudden increases can damage tissues. “Every part of the body can be affected,” says Professor Smith. “The damaging effects of increased oxygen levels are thought to be a significant determinant of the high rates of death and disability seen in very premature babies.”

What is the project trying to achieve?

Professor Smith’s research centres on two fundamental questions:

  • How do unborn babies normally prepare for life outside the womb?
  • Why can babies who are born at full term cope well with the increase in oxygen levels that occurs after birth while premature babies cannot?

He believes the answer lies in natural substances produced by a baby’s body in the weeks leading up to birth. “We have discovered that the levels of a natural protein, called PON3, increase as a baby’s due date approaches. Evidence suggests this protein is an antioxidant – that it protects babies from the damaging effects of high oxygen levels after birth. If it does, then perhaps we could use PON3 in the future as a treatment for premature babies.”

In this project, Professor Smith is using a laboratory model to determine whether an absence of PON3 results in increased damaged from oxygen and whether treating tissues with a synthetic version of PON3 prevents this harm.

What are the researchers’ credentials?

Project LeaderProfessor G C S Smith FMedSci
Project team
  • Dr S Charnock-Jones PhD
LocationDepartment of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, The Rosie Hospital, Cambridge University
DurationThree years
Grant awarded31 October 2011
Start date16 January 2012
End date15 January 2015
Grant amount£192,431.00
Grant codeSP4620, GN1805
AcknowledgementsThis project funded by a generous donation from The Henry Smith Charity.

We do not provide medical advice. If you would like more information about a condition or would like to talk to someone about your health, contact NHS Choices or speak to your GP. Please see our useful links page for some links to health information, organisations we are working with and other useful organisations. We hope you will find these useful. We are not responsible for the content of any of these sites.

Professor Smith and his colleague, Dr Stephen Charnock-Jones, have over 10 years’ experience of studying how varying oxygen levels affect babies – focusing on damage to the placenta and changes that take place in the circulatory system when breathing begins. They have worked together for more than 5 years to research how babies prepare for birth.


  1. Office for National Statistics. Health Statistics Quarterly 35 (Autumn 2007), Table 2.1
  2. The Information Centre, Community Health Statistics. NHS Maternity Statistics, England: 2003-04, 2004-05, 2005-06
  3. ONS: Health Statistics Quarterly 28 (Winter 2005), 32 (Winter 2006), 36 (Winter 2007)
  4. Total number of live births in the UK is just under 800,000. and
    Number of births for England and Wales is 708,711 see and for Northern Ireland, 29,410 births see
    and for Wales 60,041, see table 3.8
  5. Gestation length for England see
  6. Source: Office for National Statistics, Gestation-specific infant mortality in England and Wales 2007-2008
    a. For England and Wales, deaths listed as due to “immaturity related conditions”
    b. For Scotland and Northern Ireland, deaths listed as due to “disorders related to length of gestation and fetal growth
    c. Calculation made by Action Medical Research based on figures in reference 4 for the number of births a year in the UK and in reference 5 for the number of preterm deliveries in England. Estimate assumes incidence of premature birth is the same for the UK overall as it is for England
Help us spread the word