3 August 2009
Researchers at Imperial College London have identified pathways that lead to premature birth, and discovered that blocking two of the pathways may delay premature birth. The research was funded by leading children’s charity Action Medical Research.
Around 50,000 babies are born too early in the UK each year, around 7% of all births , yet very little is known about the causes of premature birth or how to prevent it. Infection and inflammation are frequent causes of premature labour and a greater understanding of the exact mechanisms involved could help researchers develop ways to prevent it.
This study investigated the biochemical mechanisms by which the membranes that surround the baby respond to infection which often leads to premature labour. The researchers discovered that the levels of a protein, Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4), rise during labour leading to activation of a pathway resulting in increased production of other proteins that trigger labour. In the laboratory study, researchers showed that blocking two parts of the pathway delayed premature labour.
Professor Bennett, lead researcher from the Clinical Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Imperial College London, says: “We are excited about the findings of this research as we have now discovered how to block a key pathway which leads to premature birth. Although more research needs to be done, we believe this is a step forward in the development of treatments to prevent premature birth.”
There are several types of Toll-like receptor proteins which are found on the surface of cells and recognise bacteria and activate inflammation3. Although bacteria are found within the womb of almost every pregnant woman, only a small percentage of women go into premature labour. Therefore understanding the exact mechanisms that lead from infection to early labour is important. The study found that activation of TLR-4 resulted in an increased production of inflammatory proteins, and induced premature birth. Inhibition of two parts of the pathway that produced the inflammatory proteins delayed premature birth.
Commenting on the research, Dr Yolande Harley, Deputy Director of Research at Action Medical Research: “This research will lead to improvements in understanding the mechanisms that cause premature birth and its impact could be significant if treatments that block this pathway are shown to prevent premature labour.”
Premature birth is a major cause of death and disability in babies and 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 do survive are at risk of developing serious disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, and learning disabilities, which persist throughout their lives.
Notes to editors:
For further information please contact:
Tola Awogbamiye at Action Medical Research
Tel: 01403 327 493
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. Peltier MR. Immunology of term and preterm labour. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology 2003; 1:122; 1-11.
Action Medical Research is a leading, national medical research charity. 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. Our research helps babies and children affected by disease and disability. We are currently funding research into serious diseases and conditions, including meningitis, pneumonia, cerebral palsy and inflammatory bowel disease.
About Imperial College London
Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 13,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality.
Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.
Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve health in the UK and globally, tackle climate change and develop clean and sustainable sources of energy.