Touching Lives - June 2007
Touching Tiny Lives: the story so far
The first of our Touching Tiny Lives goals is to reduce the number of women affected by pregnancy complications. Over the next few years hundreds of thousands of mothers in the UK will become pregnant and give birth. As these new lives begin, we look forward to the medical advances that will help mothers-to-be enjoy a safe, healthy pregnancy and labour.
Combating threatening conditions
Our Touching Tiny Lives researchers are investigating conditions such as preeclampsia and obstetric cholestasis, which can threaten the health of both mother and baby during pregnancy. Pre-eclampsia can be a very serious disorder in which a mother’s blood pressure becomes dangerously high, while obstetric cholestasis is a liver condition involving a build-up of bile acids in the blood. Our scientists are working to identify possible causes of these conditions by studying the placenta and the blood vessel lining in women with pre-eclampsia, and by examining proteins that regulate bile acid levels. An Action Medical Research-funded project is also investigating the prevalence of sleep apnoea in pregnant women and whether this can affect the growth of the unborn baby.
Many factors can affect the development of the baby in the womb. One of our scientific teams is looking at teenage pregnancy, exploring how a poor diet and the growth of the mother may contribute to restricted growth of the baby. A different team is examining how a particular protein that transports thyroid hormone is involved in the development of the fetal brain, while another is studying brain development using novel methods to obtain and process images from fetal MRI scans.
Sometimes a woman can have a full term, uncomplicated pregnancy, only to experience trouble at the final hurdle — labour. Our researchers are investigating the relationship between the activity of the womb and fetal distress to discover why some women have difficult labours, so we can develop better treatments for this potentially dangerous problem.
Around 50,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK each year, and those born very early are at the greatest risk of death or serious disability. Premature birth is something the Charity feels very strongly about, and our second goal is to reduce the number of babies born prematurely.
For us to find ways of preventing premature labour, it is important to understand the process of labour itself. Our researchers are investigating the control of contractions in the uterus. They are scrutinising the role played by ‘oxygen by-products’ and by a protein called phospholipase C.They are taking a closer look at how the drug Trichostatin A may help maintain relaxation of the uterus, and are analysing the actions of progesterone in the birth process. Increased understanding from our researchers could provide new directions for treating premature labour.
Finding the causes
Various factors may trigger premature labour, and we have a number of teams studying the roles of infection and inflammation.They want to find out whether these factors are causes or consequences of early labour, whether an inappropriate inflammatory reaction to a trivial infection may be a trigger, and how a particular bacterium may play a part by affecting the membranes surrounding the unborn baby. Approaching the problem from a different angle, another group is examining why there is an inequality in the numbers of very premature babies born to mothers from deprived backgrounds compared with affluent backgrounds. Understanding this may ultimately help to identify strategies to prevent premature birth.
Helping sick babies
Our third aim is to improve the care of the thousands of babies who suffer health problems each year. Our research teams are looking for many different, new treatments to help sick babies get a healthier start in life.
Action Medical Research-funded projects are underway to unravel the mysteries behind serious conditions affecting babies. Our scientists are investigating the causes of an inherited form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, with the hope that this may lead to new treatments. Another team has been expanding our knowledge of the faulty genetics that cause IHPS, the most common form of inherited bowel obstruction in babies. Understanding of this condition’s origin could lead to the development of alternatives to risky surgical treatment.
By improving the diagnosis of diseases affecting babies, we can identify problems early and so treat in the best way. Touching Tiny Lives researchers are developing innovative methods for diagnosing retinopathy of prematurity, a condition that can cause visual impairment and even blindness in premature babies.The team hopes their project will help allow screening of all babies at risk, and so stop them losing their sight. Our scientists are also studying the respiratory syncytial virus, which causes bronchiolitis in infants.They aim to improve diagnosis and treatment in babies suffering from this potentially serious lung infection.
Our scientists are exploring the possibility of stem cell therapies for cerebral palsy and for Hirschsprung’s disease, a life-threatening form of bowel obstruction. They are also using a laboratory model to test drugs to treat hydrocephalus, or ‘water on the brain’, a condition that can lead to serious disability. One of our teams is assessing when it is best to start milk feeds in premature babies. They are evaluating the benefits and risks of starting feeds early or late, so we can improve the care of these vulnerable infants.
Action Medical Research is devoted to creating a healthier future for everyone.The ongoing excellence of the research supported by Touching Tiny Lives is evidence of the commitment of the charity and its scientists to solving the problems of pregnancy, childbirth and the early years. TL
Our track record isn’t tiny
Our Touching Tiny Lives work continues a proud history of Action Medical Research breakthroughs. In the 1960s and 1970s we helped discover the link between folic acid and preventing spina bifida and aided the initiation of the obstetric applications of ultrasound. During the 1990s we supported research that has led to the development of a fetal heart monitor that reads an unborn baby’s heart beat.This can help doctors identify problems in the womb, so they can intervene to protect babies and their mothers.This new device has the potential to benefit the 10 per cent of unborn babies most at risk, a staggering 70,000 babies a year in the UK. Our achievements have continued beyond 2000. With our funding, scientists have identified the gene responsible for a form of cleft lip and palate.We also supported the development of an infra-red brain scanner that measures oxygen and blood in babies’ brains during labour and delivery.This may help prevent brain damage.Also, our researchers have successfully shown that a special cap that cools the brain can minimise brain damage in some newborn babies deprived of oxygen at birth, reducing the risk of death and severe disability.These exciting findings are crucial to the development of further clinical trials and could have a major impact on the care of these babies in the future.