Preventing early labour and protecting premature babies from brain damage | Action Medical Research

Preventing early labour and protecting premature babies from brain damage

31 May 2011

Researchers are investigating a possible new treatment which could stop women from going into labour too soon and protect their vulnerable babies from brain damage, thanks to a grant from children’s charity Action Medical Research.

Over 60,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK every year. Premature birth is the biggest killer of babies in the UK. Tragically around 1,500 babies die here every year after being born too soon.

Many of those who survive a very early birth develop lifelong problems such as cerebral palsy, blindness, and learning difficulties. Despite these dangers, little is known about why some women go 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.

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 research is being led by Professor Mark Johnson at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London, working with Professor Philip Bennett of Imperial College London and Dr Rachel Tribe, King’s College London.

Professor Mark Johnson said: “We 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 the natural hormone, progesterone.

Currently, most women at risk of preterm labour receive progesterone alone and this can 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.

Dr Alexandra Dedman, Senior Research Evaluation Manager for Action Medical Research, said: “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.”

For further information please contact: Claudine Powell, Communications Manager, T 01403 327478,
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Action Medical Research is 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.  

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