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Premature Birth Research

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Developing immunotherapy to prevent spontaneous preterm birth

Professor Rachel Tribe is aiming to develop a new treatment that can help prevent spontaneous preterm birth by modifying the mother’s immune and inflammatory responses during pregnancy. If the approach is successful, it could lead to happier outcomes for many babies and their families in the future.

When babies are born prematurely without any obvious explanation, it may be that problems with the mother’s immune response and the presence of inflammation and/or infection are involved.

Professor Tribe
Baby wearing sensor gap as part of research project

Importance of sleep cycles on brain development

Professor Topun Austin of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is leading a study to help preterm babies who are at higher risk of long-term neurodevelopmental complications. Professor Austin and his team will investigate the importance of a baby’s natural sleep cycle for healthy brain development and how caring for these babies in an environment unlike that of the womb – in the bright lights and loud noises of the neonatal unit – may interrupt these essential sleep cycles.

Ultimately, we hope to develop a new system for use in neonatal units that can help to promote sleep cycling and support healthy brain development in these vulnerable babies.

Professor Austin
Baby in incubator

Reducing the risk of preterm birth

Currently, there are no treatments available that can reliably prevent premature womb contractions while also being risk-free for the mother and baby. For example, many drugs that are effective at reducing contractions may also relax blood vessels and affect blood flow to the womb or placenta, which could put the baby at risk.

At Newcastle University, Professor Michael Taggart hopes to change this by investigating ways to target the muscles of the womb without affecting other important tissues. This research could ultimately lead to safer and more effective treatments for spontaneous preterm birth. We are co-funding this project with Borne.

We’re aiming to find a way to specifically target the muscles of the womb without affecting other important tissues – safely and effectively reducing the likelihood of spontaneous preterm birth.

Professor Michael Taggart
Dr Deena Gibbons

Helping preterm babies combat life-threatening infections

Bacterial infections are a particular risk for preterm babies during their first few weeks of life and sadly, it can result in loss of life or serious lifelong disabilities. Currently, it is difficult to confirm an infection, as the normal tests are hard to interpret in preterm babies, but at King's College London Dr Deena Gibbons hopes to change this.

Dr Gibbons and her research team aim to improve our understanding of how the preterm immune system reacts to severe bacterial infections, which will be crucial for developing new ways to improve tests and treatments for these vulnerable babies – helping to save lives.

Ultimately, we hope this will lead to new tests that can help identify babies who may be at higher risk of developing a severe infection so that steps can be taken to help protect them in the critical, first few weeks of life.

Dr Deena Gibbons
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Improving pregnancy care in childhood cancer survivors

Evidence suggests that women who had cancer treatment as a child or young adult are more likely to experience problems during pregnancy, including an increased risk of their babies being born prematurely. Dr Melanie Griffin of University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust is looking at the long-term impact of cancer treatment involving bone marrow transplantation on women’s reproductive health.

Dr Griffin's research, co-funded with Borne, hopes to identify new ways to improve care for these childhood cancer survivors before and during their pregnancy, reducing the chances of their babies being born too soon.

If we can prove that these women have an increased risk of pregnancy problems, they could be offered specialist care before and during pregnancy to reduce the risk of their babies being born too soon.

Dr Melanie Griffin

Identifying babies at high risk of learning difficulties

We know that a baby’s growth and development in the womb has a profound influence on their health and development later in life, including how well they do at school.

Dr Catherine Aiken's research at University of Cambridge is aiming to use detailed measurements collected during pregnancy, such as growth scans, to predict which babies are more likely to experience problems affecting their brain development.

By identifying babies at high risk it means steps can be taken to ensure these children receive early interventions to support their learning - giving them the best possible chance of success. 

Identifying which babies are most likely to experience challenges that impact on their education would help ensure they receive the support they need both at home and at school.

Dr Catherine Aiken
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Current premature birth research

Read more about some of the other current groundbreaking research projects we're funding into premature birth.

A history of research success

A history of research success

At Action Medical Research, we fight for answers. Answers that can lead to cures, treatments and medical breakthroughs for some of the toughest fights our children face.

Take a look at our history of funding groundbreaking research that has benefited thousands of babies and their families.