Current research into premature birth
Over 1,000 babies die each year in the UK after being born too soon and globally, premature birth is the biggest killer of children under five.
Despite being the single biggest cause of neonatal death in the UK, premature birth remains an underfunded and overlooked area of research. We want to change that. We know that through medical research we can stop the devastation caused by premature birth.
We're funding research to better understand what causes women to go into labour too soon like Dr Joanna Cook’s and Professor Rachel Tribe’s below, which could lead to predictive tests that could ultimately save lives.
Together we will find the answers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.