Touching Lives - June 2005
Progress on prematurity - thanks to cancer treatment drug
Around 50,000 babies a year in the UK are born before 37 weeks, but the mechanism that causes contractions to start is not properly understood.
A grant of £142,083 from Action Medical Research is funding a study to define how a protein which causes the muscle cells of the womb to relax during pregnancy is regulated.
The team is led by Dr Nick Europe-Finner of the School of Surgical and Reproductive Sciences at Newcastle University. A previous study, also funded by Action Medical Research, has identified a drug that may potentially ‘control’ early contractions but the new grant will take that study further by looking to see if this drug can also regulate another protein which causes uterine relaxation, which will hopefully lead to clinical trials.
He said, “^Without the help of Action Medical Research none of this would have been possible. Premature birth is a huge problem, not just in the UK but across the globe, and currently there is no effective treatment.^ Babies born too early can go on to suffer problems throughout their lives, and prematurity costs the NHS millions of pounds each year.
“Drugs which can currently be used to stop premature labour can have severe side effects for both mother and baby, including long-term heart problems. We have shown that we can regulate the receptors that send messages to the muscles to make them relax during pregnancy. If we can keep those muscles relaxed, then we can prevent early labour.”
The drug Trichostatin A (TSA), which has been used to treat breast, bowel and lung cancer, has been shown to act on the muscle cells of the womb that are affected by the hormone hCG, which is released by the placenta during pregnancy.
This hormone stimulates the muscles’ cells via specific protein receptors to produce a natural relaxant — but in some women, levels of the hormone receptors drop and the result can be contractions and early labour. In the laboratory,TSA appears to keep the number of hCG receptors at a very high level, thus maintaining uterine relaxation.
Dr Europe-Finner said, “^It is surprising that so much about the biology of the human uterus is still unknown, but our work in the laboratory is helping us make important progress.^
“Babies born before 32 weeks can face an uncertain future and many are likely to suffer serious health or developmental problems. The support of Action Medical Research means that we can continue our work on this very promising study and we may eventually have an effective treatment that won’t put mothers or their babies at risk — one that should cut the number of babies born pre-term, with important consequences for society as a whole.”