Breakthrough holds promise of helping to stop premature birth | Action Medical Research

Breakthrough holds promise of helping to stop premature birth

5 April 2011

Researchers at King’s College and St George’s University London have identified a new way of suppressing uterine muscle contractions which could lead to novel treatments to help stop premature birth.

The research funded by children’s health charity Action Medical Research, baby charity Tommy’s and King’s College London School of Medicine was part of a larger study published in the Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine this month[i].

Premature birth accounts for around 7 per cent of births in the UK, and is the single biggest killer of babies under one year old[ii],[iii].[iv].   Despite improved neonatal care and survival rates for babies born early, there has been no corresponding progress in reducing the incidence of premature birth.

Around two-thirds of premature births are spontaneous[v], typically with the mother going into labour, or the membranes rupturing, before term.  Drugs called tocolytics can slow labour, but those currently used only delay birth by 48 hours or so which has relatively little effect on a baby’s degree of maturation at birth. To date, no preventative treatments have demonstrated significantly improved outcomes for babies born early[vi].

Lead researcher Dr Rachel Tribe from the Maternal and Fetal Research Unit at King’s College said: “It is extremely difficult to predict which women are at risk of preterm labour and there is relatively little that can be done to stop the labour once it has started.

“In this study we used uterine muscle samples donated by women undergoing caesarean section. We established that specific potassium channels (Kv7 channels) in cells play a role in controlling the activity of the muscles of the uterus. We have shown for the first time that by using a class of drugs already developed for pain and epilepsy to increase the activity of these channels, we can successfully suppress contractions. This is a significant step forward in the search for future treatments for preterm labour.”

Tracy Swinfield, Director of Research at Action Medical Research said: “Developing more effective tocolytic therapies would have major benefits for babies at risk of early birth and could help more babies be born at term.”

Babies born early often face difficulties with breathing, feeding and fighting infection, and spend months in special care. Many of those born very early go on to develop life-long conditions such as cerebral palsy, blindness, hearing loss and learning difficulties.

Jacqui Clinton, Health Campaigns Director for Tommy's said: "The UK has the highest rate of premature birth in Western Europe. It can be a stressful experience for all involved and, in some cases, very premature babies may not survive or may go on to have long-term health problems.  As such as we are always looking at ways in which we can stop pre-term birth from happening in the first place, and are proud to be involved with research such as this which could help prevent babies being born too early."

Notes to editors

The research team

The project leader, Dr Rachel Tribe, is an internationally recognised researcher and worked with researcher Dr Laura McCallumon this project.  She aims to translate important scientific findings into better ways to predict who’s at risk of preterm labour, and to prevent and treat preterm labour. Dr Iain Greenwood, a leading pharmacologist based at St George’s University of London, further supports this research project.

This research was supported by the Rosetrees Trust, which helps fund doctors searching for ways to reduce the high rate of premature birth, prevent pregnancy complications that threaten babies’ lives, and develop better treatments for sick and vulnerable babies.

Action Medical Researchis the leading UK-wide medical research charity dedicated to helping babies and children. We know that medical research can save and change children’s lives. For nearly 60 years we have been instrumental in significant medical breakthroughs, including the development of the UK polio vaccine and ultrasound scanning in pregnancy. Today, we continue to find and fund the very best medical research to help stop the suffering of babies and children caused by disease and disability. We want to make a difference in:

  • tackling premature birth and treating sick and vulnerable babies
  • helping children affected by disability, disabling conditions and infections
  • targeting rare diseases that together severely affect many forgotten children.

For further information please contact: Claudine Powell, Communications Manager, T 01403 327478

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At Tommy’s we believe every pregnancy should have a happy ending. We want to give every baby the best chance of being born healthy, so we work to fund medical research into the causes of premature birth, stillbirth and miscarriage, and provide a free information service that educates all parents-to-be about health in pregnancy.

Our information service is informed by our medical research and includes a telephone midwife service, a comprehensive website and free books and leaflets promoting health in pregnancy. By 2030 we want to halve the number of babies who die during pregnancy or birth. Tommy’s registered charity number is 1060508 and SC039280. For more information visit For further information, please contact Vicky Hubbard ( or Ann Brown ( at the Tommy’s press office - 020 7398 3448/6.


[i]J. Cell. Mol. Med. Vol 15, No 3, 2011 pp. 577-586

[ii]Office for National Statistics. Health Statistics Quarterly 28 (Winter 2005), 32 (Winter 2006), 36 (Winter 2007)

[iii]General Register Office for Scotland, Vital Events Reference Tables 2006

[iv]Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Registrar General Annual Report 2006

[v]. Iams JD. et al. Preterm Birth 2. Primary, secondary and tertiary interventions to reduce morbidity and mortality of preterm birth. Lancet 2008; 371:164-75

[vi]Gyetvai K, Hannah ME, Hodnett ED, Ohlsson A. Tocolytics for preterm labour: a systematic review. Obstet Gynecol. 1999 Nov; 94(5 Pt 2):869-77

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