Stopping contractions in preterm labour | Children's Charity

Stopping contractions in preterm labour

This research was completed on 28 February 2011

Published on 31 January 2008

Each year in the UK, around 1,500 babies die because they are born too soon.1,2,3 Premature babies who do survive are at risk of developing serious, lifelong disabilities, such as cerebral palsy. Often, the first indication of a problem is when a woman arrives at hospital in preterm labour. Researchers are searching for better ways to halt labour, in the hope of saving babies’ lives and preventing disability.

What's the problem and who does it affect?

Death and disability

About 50,000 babies are born prematurely each year in the UK – that’s around 7% of all births.4,5 Sadly, premature birth can be very dangerous. It is a major cause of death and disability in babies. Those born very early, before 32 weeks of pregnancy, are at highest risk.

Very premature babies often die within the first few days of life. Many others spend weeks or even months in intensive care. Those who are lucky enough to survive are at risk of developing serious disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, and learning disabilities, which persist throughout their lives.

The impact of premature birth is far reaching, affecting everyone from the child themselves to their parents, siblings and grandparents, and society as a whole.

About 50-60% of premature births happen because the mother goes into labour too soon.6,7 Unfortunately, it is difficult to predict which women are at risk – many go into labour without warning. Doctors try to stop contractions using drugs, called tocolytics, but they are not very effective and don’t really improve a baby’s chance of survival. We desperately need better ways to halt preterm labour.

What is the project trying to achieve?

Controlling contractions

During labour, muscle cells in the womb – known medically as the uterus – contract rhythmically. These contractions are controlled, in part, by pores in the walls of muscle cells. The pores are called ion channels. They can open and close to allow small chemicals, called ions, to move into and out of muscle cells.

There are lots of different ion channels. Researchers have preliminary evidence that suggests two classes of potassium channels play a key role in controlling contractions of the uterus. They are investigating the importance of these channels in controlling labour, and whether several different drugs that target these channels can stop muscle cells from contracting.

The researchers are studying samples from the womb taken with consent from around 100 women who are undergoing planned and emergency Caesarean sections. They are comparing samples taken from women who have, and have not gone into labour, both at full term and preterm.

What are the researchers' credentials?

Project LeaderDr R Tribe BSc PhD
Project team
  • Dr Iain Greenwood BSc PhD
LocationMaternal and Fetal Research Unit, King's College London at St Thomas' Hospital in conjunction with the Division of Basic Medical Sciences, St George's University of London
Other locations
  • Division of Basic Medical Sciences, St George’s University of London
DurationTwo years
Grant awarded31 October 2007
Start date1 October 2008
End date28 February 2011
Grant amount£114,752.00
Grant codeSP4298

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The Project Leader, Dr Rachel Tribe, is an internationally recognised researcher. She aims to translate important scientific findings into better ways to predict who’s at risk of going into labour prematurely, and to prevent and treat preterm labour. Dr Tribe is based at one of the UK’s leading research centres dedicated to understanding complications of pregnancy. Daily interactions between the Unit’s scientists and clinicians ensure all research is relevant to the needs of pregnant women and their babies.

Dr Iain Greenwood, a leading pharmacologist based at St Georges University of London, further supports this research project. His expertise lies in understanding the effects of drugs that target contractions of the uterus during labour. Together, Dr Tribe and Dr Greenwood are experienced in a wide range of research techniques, which they are using to investigate novel drugs that might stop uterine contractions in pregnant women.

Who stands to benefit from this research and how?

Stopping preterm labour could save lives and reduce disability

Little is known about what controls when a pregnant woman goes into labour, or what goes wrong when a baby is born prematurely. The aim of this project is to find out more about the processes that control contractions of the womb, and whether several new drugs have the potential to stop contractions. If the drugs show promise, then the researchers plan further laboratory studies in the lead up to clinical trials.

The ultimate aim is to find a more effective treatment for women who go into labour too soon – a drug that can halt their contractions, and stop their baby from being born prematurely.

Going into labour early is the leading cause of premature birth,6,7 and premature birth is the leading cause of death in infants.8 All too many premature babies who survive develop lifelong disabilities. It is sad to think that these babies, who often seem perfectly healthy during pregnancy, can have their lives changed so dramatically by their early birth. The babies, their families and society as a whole have a lot to gain from finding better ways of delaying the time of birth.


  1. Office for National Statistics. Health Statistics Quarterly 32, Winter 2006: 1)
  2. General Register Office for Scotland. Vital Events Reference Tables 2006. Section 4: Stillbirths and Infant deaths. Table 4.7: (2)
  3. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Registrar General Annual Report 2005 - Section 4 Stillbirths and Infant Deaths. Table 4.5: (3)
  4. NHS Maternity Statistics, England: 2004-05; (4)
  5. Office for National Statistics. Health Statistics Quarterly 35 (Autumn 2007), Table 2.1: (5)
  6. Slattery MM, Morrison JJ, Preterm delivery. Lancet. 2002; 360:1489-97.
  7. Davidoff MJ, Dias T, Damus K, Russell R, Bettegowda VR, Dolan S, Schwarz RH, Green NS, Petrini J.Changes in the gestational age distribution among U.S. singleton births: impact on rates of late preterm birth, 1992 to 2002. Semin Perinatol. 2006 Feb;30(1):8-15
  8. Office for National Statistics. Mortality statistics: Childhood, infant and perinatal. Series DH3 no. 38. Table 8 (p93): (8)
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