Preventing premature birth | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - October 2011

Preventing premature birth

Your support has helped further understanding about the causes of premature birth. Research teams in London and Edinburgh have conducted studies funded by Action Medical Research looking at different proteins and found results that could lead to new treatments.

Over 60,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK every year. Tragically, around 1,500 of them die, making premature birth the biggest killer of babies in the UK.

Stopping labour

Researchers at King’s College London and St George’s University of London have identified a new way of suppressing uterine muscle contractions which could lead to novel treatments to help stop premature birth. Around two-thirds of premature births are spontaneous. Drugs called tocolytics can slow labour, but those currently used only delay birth by around 48 hours. 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 our study we established that specific potassium channels (Kv7 channels) in cells play a role in controlling 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.” This project was funded thanks to your support and a donation from Rosetrees Trust.  

Tackling inflammation

Another team, led by Professor Jane Norman at the University of Edinburgh, investigated the role of a particular protein in preterm labour. The presence of bacteria can cause the body to produce signals that cause an inflammatory response in the womb, and this can induce preterm labour in some women. Professor Norman’s team found that the genes for certain proteins called Toll-like receptors are turned on very strongly in womb muscle cells of women in labour, and that the presence of bacteria can activate these receptors and trigger inflammation. Their work has led to a much greater understanding of how inflammation can cause preterm labour, and the team now want to investigate the possibility of using anti-inflammatory drugs targeted to Toll-like receptors to treat inflammation and help prevent preterm labour.

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