Preventing brain injury in premature babies | Children's Charity

Preventing brain injury in premature babies

Published on 16 January 2018

In the UK, around 61,000 babies are born prematurely each year and sadly, more than 1,000 will die.1-7 Children who survive can experience lifelong conditions such as cerebral palsy, learning difficulties, blindness and hearing loss. Evidence suggests that bacteria can pass into the womb and trigger inflammation, which can cause early labour and damage the baby’s developing brain. Professor Donald Peebles at University College London is developing an innovative new gene therapy that could help prevent preterm birth and protect the baby’s brain. He is now carrying out laboratory tests to investigate the effectiveness of this potential new treatment.

Action Medical Research and Borne are jointly funding this research.

How are children’s lives affected now?

Around one in every 13 babies in the UK will be born premature, before 37 weeks of pregnancy.1-8 And, despite extensive research over recent years, these numbers are not falling.9

Tragically, being born too soon is the biggest cause of newborn death.10 And premature birth is not just a fight for life. Many children, particularly those born before 32 weeks of pregnancy, will grow up experiencing serious, long-term consequences – including cerebral palsy, learning difficulties, blindness and hearing loss.

What causes premature birth is often unknown. But evidence suggests that infection is involved in four out of 10 women who experience an unexpected early labour.11

“Bacteria, usually found inside the mother’s vagina, can sometimes get through the neck of the womb – the cervix – and into the womb where the baby is growing,” says Professor Peebles. “This is bad news, as this infection can trigger inflammation that may cause premature birth and damage to the developing baby’s brain.”

How could this research help?

“We are aiming to develop a new treatment that can help prevent bacteria getting into the womb,” says Professor Peebles. “Our hope is it could both reduce the numbers of premature births, as well as reduce the risk of brain damage and its long-lasting impact on children’s lives.”

Anti-bacterial molecules produced in the cervix help to stop bacteria from getting through. The team are developing a new gene therapy that is designed to boost these natural defences, helping to protect the womb from infection.

“We are now planning the next stage of our laboratory tests, to investigate if our innovative new approach can prevent bacterial damage to the developing fetal brain,” says Professor Peebles. “And importantly, we also need to confirm that it is safe for both mother and baby.”

“If our results continue to show promise, we aim to take this potential new treatment into clinical trials within the next five years,” says Professor Peebles.


  1. Office for National Statistics: [website accessed 12 December 2017]
  2. National Records of Scotland: 2016 Births, Deaths and Other Vital Events - Preliminary Annual Figures: [website accessed 12 December 2017]
  3. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Births. Live births 1887-2016. [website accessed 12 December 2017]
  4. National Institute for Clinical Excellence: Preterm labour and birth final scope April 2013
  5. Office for National Statistics. Childhood mortality in England and Wales 2014. Table 6.  [website accessed 12 December 2017]
  6. National Records for Scotland. Section 4: Stillbirths and Infant deaths:  [website accessed 12 December 2017]
  7. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Registrar General Annual Report 2015 – Stillbirths and Infant Deaths: [website accessed 12 December 2017]
  8. Bliss charity: [website accessed 06 December 2017]
  9. House of Commons Library; World Prematurity Day 2015, Debate Pack CDP 2015/104:
  10. Blencowe H et al. Born too soon: the global epidemiology of 15 million preterm birth. Reproductive Health 2013; 10 Suppl 1 S2
  11. Romero R et al. The role of infection in preterm labour and delivery. Paediatrics Perinatal Epidemiology 2001; 15 Suppl 2 41-56.
Project LeaderProfessor Donald M Peebles, MA MBBS MD FRCOG
Project team
  • Dr Simon N Waddington, BSc MSc PhD
  • Dr Natalie Suff, BSc MBBCh MRCOG
  • Dr Ahad A Rahim, BSc PhD
LocationDepartment of Maternal and Fetal Medicine, Institute for Women’s Health, University College London
Other locations
  • School of Pharmacy, University College London
DurationTwo years
Grant awarded21 November 2017
Start date1 May 2018
End date30 April 2020
Grant amount£141,949.00
Grant codeGN2647

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.



Help us spread the word