Touching Lives - September 2004
Prevention is better than cure for pre-term babies
A team led by Dr Raheela Khan and based at the University of Nottingham and Derby City General Hospital, hope that a grant of £96,000 from Action Medical Research will help them to come up with some answers.
The team are looking at the effect of lipids — compounds made from fats — on muscle contractions. They want to see if a change in the production of these lipids can trigger the muscle spasms that start contractions and cause a baby to be born.
Dr Khan explained, “We know there is a family of lipids released from the blood vessels that have an impact on the cells around them. They cause tissues to relax and contract and we want to determine what happens to the levels of these lipids during pregnancy. They may reduce prior to delivery causing the uterus to contract.
“With premature births, we think this change simply happens too early, and by understanding the process we hope that we will be able to develop a strategy to stop it happening before it should.”
Identifying the actual lipids involved has been the first step, and various laboratory techniques are being used to study them and their effect on body tissue.
Dr Khan said, “By identifying these lipids and demonstrating that they cause relaxation during pregnancy it may be possible for us to produce a version of them that can prolong pregnancy. A baby born too early faces so many problems, and of course some don’t make it through the first weeks of life.
She added, “We are very grateful to Action Medical Research for funding this study. What’s really rewarding is that I get feedback from women who have gone through the trauma of having a premature birth, saying how pleased they are to see research being done into the cause.”
Dr Khan is working jointly with Dr David Barrett. So far they have been delighted with progress, especially because some of the techniques they are using are new. The study will run until the end of 2005, and the long-term vision is that the findings may lead to the development of effective drugs to prevent preterm labour.
If that happens, thousands of women in the UK could benefit each year. Around ten per cent of all pregnancies end in a pre-term delivery, often caused by the early on-set of labour, and prematurity is a growing problem.
Dr Khan said, “There has actually been a rise in premature births over the last few years, partly because of the number of IVF-assisted pregnancies and the increase in multiple births, which are always less likely to go to full term.
“Premature birth is something of a dilemma. Advances in care means that very early babies can survive, but ^many face an uphill struggle and their quality of life can be severely compromised^.
“This really is an example of prevention being better than cure — and donations from the supporters of Action Medical Research make all the difference to us in being able to carry out this valuable work.”