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Fighting premature birth - Research

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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


Dr Darren Smith, University of Northumbria at Newcastle

Protecting preterm babies from NEC

Serious bowel disease including necrotising enterocolitis (NEC) and blood infection (sepsis) are the commonest cause of death after the first week of life in preterm babies. The causes are not well understood, but both are thought to be linked to an ‘imbalance’ in the baby’s gut bacteria.

Breast fed babies are less likely to develop these infections, so researchers, led by Dr Darren Smith, at University of Northumbria are investigating how breast milk exerts its protective effects, and in particular, if it helps preterm infants develop a healthy range of gut bacteria.

Better understanding of the causes of NEC and infections could help doctors identify babies most at risk of poor outcomes. And in the longer term, this work could lead to improvements in neonatal care and treatment to promote a healthy gut and protect pre-term babies from life-threatening illness.

Dr Cook is a former Action Research Training Fellow

Significant progress developing a test to predict risk of early labour

Research funded by Action in 2014 has made important steps towards developing a blood test that could be used in early pregnancy to identify women who are at high risk of going into labour too soon.

Research Training Fellow Dr Joanna Cook investigated the role of naturally occurring substances called microRNAs, which seem to be involved in controlling when a woman goes into labour. These can be detected in the blood and, importantly, their levels have been found to be different in women who go on to develop cervical weakness – a known cause of premature birth. If diagnosed early enough cervical weakness can be treated and pregnancy prolonged.

These promising results will now be tested in a larger group of women. If successful, it is hoped that a commercially available test would be ready in around five years.

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Professor Donald Peebles

Preventing brain injury in premature babies

Professor Donald Peebles’ research at University College London aims to develop an innovative new treatment to help prevent infection-related premature birth and injury to the developing baby’s brain, helping to save and change more babies lives. We are co-funding this project with Borne.

Our hope is that the treatment could both reduce the numbers of premature births, as well as reduce the risk of brain damage and its long-lasting impact on children’s lives. If our results continue to show promise, we aim to take this potential new treatment into clinical trials within the next five years.

Professor Donald Peebles
Professor Rachel Tribe

Working to identify women at risk of premature birth

Although the causes of preterm birth are often not understood, one factor may be how a woman’s body deals with infections during pregnancy. “Developing a better understanding about this should help us find new ways to reduce a woman’s risk of premature birth and the heartache it can cause," explains Professor Rachel Tribe, of King’s College, London.

Professor Tribe’s research, co-funded with Borne, hopes to develop a new screening test that can help identify pregnant women who are at increased risk of early delivery. If successful, this test would enable the appropriate steps to be taken to protect babies from being born too soon – saving more lives and reducing the risk of long-term complications.

High quality and focused research is vital if we are to save lives and make a real difference to this growing global problem.

Professor Rachel Tribe
Professor Mark Johnson

Testing a new treatment to delay early labour

Treatment with a hormone called progesterone can reduce a woman’s risk of giving birth early, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Professor Mark Johnson, of Imperial College London, has been investigating whether combination treatment with progesterone and a medicine called aminophylline works better.

The new treatment was tested on a small group of pregnant women who are known to be at high risk of going into labour too early. If it proves successful, the team will go on to set up a much larger clinical trial in many more women.

Our ultimate goal is to stop babies from being born too soon, save their lives and protect them from disability,

Professor Mark Johnson.
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.