Avoiding Early Labour: Brain Damage in Babies | Action Medical Research | Children's Charity

Premature birth: preventing early labour and protecting babies from brain damage

First published on 29 October 2010

Updated on 28 July 2015

What did the project achieve?

“Premature birth is the biggest killer of babies in the UK and our ultimate goal is to find ways to stop so many babies from being born too soon, save their lives and improve their health,” says Professor Mark Johnson of Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London.1-4

Around 60,000 babies are born prematurely every year in the UK.5-8 Tragically, around 1,200 of these babies die.1-4 Those who survive are at increased risk of developing lifelong disabilities, especially if they’re born very early.

Most premature births happen when women go into labour too soon.

“We’ve been studying a naturally occurring molecule called cAMP,” says Professor Johnson. “A hormone called oxytocin stimulates contraction of the womb during labour. Our studies show that cAMP can block the action of oxytocin and stop womb muscle from contracting in the laboratory. This implies drugs that increase cAMP levels, or mimic the action of cAMP, might help prevent premature birth.”

“Our laboratory work also suggests that combination treatment with two drugs – called progesterone and aminophylline (which may increase cAMP levels) – might prevent the onset of premature labour,” continues Professor Johnson. “We hope to study this possibility further in women who are at high risk of going into labour early.”


1. WHO Preterm birth. Fact sheet No 363. Updated November 2014. www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs363/en/ Website accessed 12 May 2015.

2. Office for National Statistics. Correction notice. Child mortality statistics 2013. Table 6. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/vsob1/child-mortality-statistics--childhoo... Website accessed 12 May 2015.

3. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Registrar General Annual Report 2013. Section 4. Stillbirths and infant deaths. Table 4.5 Stillbirths and infant deaths, by sex and cause, 2010 to 2013. http://www.nisra.gov.uk/demography/default.asp99.htm Website accessed 12 May 2015.

4. National Records of Scotland. Vital Events Reference Tables 2013. Section 4: Stillbirths and infant deaths. Table 4.5: Infant deaths, by sex and cause, Scotland, 2003 to 2013. http://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/statistics-and-data/statistics/statistics-b... Website accessed 12 May 2015.

5. Office for National Statistics Gestation-specific Infant Mortality, 2012. Table 3 Live births, neonatal and infant mortality by birthweight and gestational age at birth, http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/child-health/gestation-specific-infant-mor... Website accessed 12 May 2015.

6. Office for National Statistics. Births in England and Wales, 2013. Table 1. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/vsob1/birth-summary-tables--england-and-wa... Website accessed 12 May 2015.

7. Births in Scottish Hospitals. Year ending 31st March 2013. Publication date – 26th August 2014. Table 1. http://www.isdscotland.org/Health-Topics/Maternity-and-Births/Publicatio... Table 5 Website accessed 12 May 2015.

8. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Births. Live births 1887-2013. http://www.nisra.gov.uk/demography/default.asp8.htm Website accessed 13 May 2015.

This research was completed on 30 April 2014

Over 50,000 babies are born prematurely each year in the UK, putting them at risk of death and disability.1,2a We still don’t know exactly what causes many early births or how to prevent them. Researchers are investigating the potential of possible new treatments for women who are at high risk of having their baby very early. They believe these treatments might have dual benefits – both stopping women from going into labour too soon and protecting their vulnerable babies from brain damage.

What's the problem and who does it affect?

The earlier the birth, the greater the danger

The rate of premature births has risen in many industrialised countries.3,4 In the UK, premature birth is the biggest killer of babies under one.5-8,b,c Sadly around 1,500 babies die here every year after being born too soon.5-8,b,c

Many babies who survive an early birth develop lifelong disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, blindness, hearing loss and learning difficulties. They might also have an increased susceptibility to some diseases in adulthood, including heart disease and diabetes.9

In total, over 50,000 babies are born prematurely – more than three weeks early – each year in the UK.1,2.a The earlier a premature baby is born, the lower their chances of surviving and escaping disability. A shocking eight of every ten babies develop disabilities if they survive after being born more than 14 weeks early.10

Many premature births happen because the mother goes into labour too soon. Tests can identify women who are at high risk of having an extremely early delivery, but little can be done to help the women or their babies.

What is the project trying to achieve?

Benefiting both mother and child

In the past, many of the attempts to delay premature birth have focused on stopping contractions in women who have already gone into labour. Drugs called tocolytics can slow down labour, but they can normally delay a baby’s birth by only 48 hours or so.

The researchers believe that a key to better, preventative treatment could involve a molecule called cAMP. Preliminary data suggests drugs that target cAMP might both decrease a woman’s chances of going into labour early and protect her baby from the harmful effects of infection. Infection is thought to play a major role in the onset of preterm labour and it can cause brain damage in the unborn child.

The researchers are investigating the potential of drugs that increase cAMP levels, and whether they work better alone or in combination with a natural hormone, called progesterone. Currently, most women at risk of preterm labour receive progesterone alone and this reduces their risk, but does not prevent premature labour completely. More importantly, we do not know if it improves the baby's chances of surviving or escaping disability. The researchers are finding out how cAMP works to stop contractions and protect the fetal brain.

What are the researchers' credentials?

Project LeaderProfessor M Johnson MBBS MRCP MRCOG PhD
Project team
  • Professor Philip Bennett BSc PhD MD FRCOG
  • Dr Rachel Tribe BSc SpHons PhD
LocationDepartment of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London
Other locations
  • Parturition Research Group, Imperial College Faculty of Medicine, London
  • Women’s Health, Division of Reproduction and Endocrinology, King’s College London
Duration3 years
Grant awarded29 July 2010
Start date1 May 2011
End date30 April 2014
Grant amount£167,347.00
Grant codeSP4573, GN1782

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.

The three researchers in the project team are leading experts in premature birth. They have all dedicated their careers to improving the care of women who are at risk of going into labour too soon, and finding ways to improve the health of their babies. They are highly regarded worldwide and have impressive publications records.

The researchers have cutting-edge expertise in laboratory research, and have focused in particular on investigating the molecular mechanisms involved in the onset of labour. They have also been involved in several clinical trials, looking for ways to predict which women are at risk of going into labour prematurely and to prevent early births.

Collectively, the researchers have been responsible for several seminal findings relating to premature birth. They revealed, for example, how stretching of the womb contributes to the onset of preterm labour in women who are expecting twins or triplets. They also uncovered the central role played by proteins called ion channels and hormone-like substances called prostaglandins in the onset of preterm and term labour.

The research is taking place in the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology, Imperial College, London, a state-of-the-art research building equipped with the very latest scientific apparatus.

Who stands to benefit from this research and how?

Protecting babies from life-long disability

The researchers aim to help pregnant women who are at high risk of having their baby very early. Evidence suggests that tests can identify up to eighty per cent of women who are at risk of having their baby more than 12 weeks too soon.11

The researchers are in the early stages of their work. Ultimately, they hope to develop a treatment that brings dual benefits – cutting a woman’s chances of having her baby too soon and protecting the baby from harm.

More specifically, they hope to protect babies from brain damage, so stopping them from developing life-long disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, and sparing them from a lifetime of dependency on others.

The parents, siblings and other close relatives of premature babies can be deeply affected by the stress of caring for them. The economic costs are staggering, with major cost implications for the families themselves, the NHS, the education system and social care.

Treatments that can prevent premature birth, and protect babies from developing life-long disabilities, could bring profound benefits to the babies, their families and society as a whole.


  1. Office for National Statistics. Health Statistics Quarterly 43 (Autumn 2009), Table 2.1 http://www.statistics.gov.uk/downloads/theme_health/HSQ43.pdf
  2. The Information Centre, Community Health Statistics. NHS Maternity Statistics, England: 2006-07, 2007-08, 2008-09 http://www.ic.nhs.uk/statistics-and-data-collections/hospital-care/maternity/nhs-maternity-statistics-2008-09
  3. Goldenberg RL et al. Epidemiology and causes of preterm birth. The Lancet 2008; 371:75-84.
  4. US Institute of Medicine. Preterm Birth: Causes, Consequences and Prevention. July 13, 2006. http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2006/Preterm-Birth-Causes-Consequences-and-Prevention.aspx
  5. Office for National Statistics. Health Statistics Quarterly 28 (Winter 2005), 32 (Winter 2006), 36 (Winter 2007)
  6. Office for National Statistics. Infant and perinatal mortality in England and Wales by social and biological factors. Statistical Bulletin. 24 November 2009. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/pdfdir/ipm1109.pdf
  7. General Register Office for Scotland, Vital Events Reference Tables 2009
  8. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Registrar General Annual Report 2008
  9. Saigal S, Doyle LW. Preterm Birth 3. An overview of mortality and sequelae of preterm birth from infancy to adulthood. Lancet 2008; 371:261-69.
  10. Marlow N, Wolke D, Bracewell MA, Samara M. Neurologic and Developmental Disability at Six Years of Age after Extremely Preterm Birth. N Engl J Med 2005; 352:9-19.
  11. Celik E et al. Cervical length and obstetric history predict spontaneous preterm birth: development and validation of a model to provide individualized risk assessment. Ultrasound Obstet Gynecol 2008; 31(5) 549-54.
Help us spread the word