Researchers at University College London Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health have the go ahead to start work developing a new, simple test to identify early on in pregnancy women who are at risk of premature labour.
The study has been made possible with a grant of £91,171 from children’s charity Action Medical Research.
With funding secured, the 16-month study led by Professor Nigel Klein is now set to begin in January 2017.
Premature birth and its complications are the leading cause of death among children under five years of age across the world.1 Tragically, over 1,000 babies die in the UK each year after being born too soon.2-4 And babies who survive a very early birth are at risk of developing lifelong problems such as cerebral palsy, blindness and learning difficulties.
Sadly, over 61,000 babies are born too soon each year in the UK, putting them at risk of death and disability.5-8
All newborn babies are vulnerable, but those born very early are particularly so. They can face difficulties with breathing, feeding and fighting infections, and are at increased risk of developing lifelong disabilities. They’re also more susceptible to some health problems during adulthood, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
It is thought that inflammation within the womb, in response to bacterial infection, is a probable trigger in some cases – and this is the focus of Professor Klein’s new study.
He explains: “With earlier funding from Action Medical Research and the Henry Smith Charity, we discovered that women who lack white blood cells at the cervix – the opening to the womb – are more likely to give birth prematurely. White blood cells help fight infection and infection within the womb has been linked to early births.”
Professor Klein continues: “Now, we are looking to develop a new, simple test which detects white blood cells at the cervix and which can be widely used in early pregnancy.”
“We hope our new test will mean women who are found to be at high risk of giving birth early can be monitored more closely and offered extra treatment, with the aim of prolonging their pregnancy.”
Director of Research at Action Medical Research Dr Tracy Swinfield says: “A new diagnostic test to help identify high risk pregnancies, and a better understanding of the processes that lead to an early birth, could lead to new ways to stop so many babies being born too soon. Action Medical Research is delighted to be supporting Professor Klein’s work and proud to mark World Prematurity Day.”
For mum Jo Dawes and husband Will, whose son Samuel was born at just 30 weeks, research like this means the world.
Samuel is now a healthy, happy toddler but things could have been very different, as Jo explains:
“I had been really well throughout my pregnancy. I had previously suffered a bowel condition, so my midwife referred me to a consultant who said there was no need to worry.”
But at 29 weeks, Jo started to experience terrible pain and was admitted to hospital, where she was told that she needed major surgery. To give Samuel’s tiny lungs the best possible chance to develop, doctors injected Jo with steroids for two days ahead of the operation.
“For my family it was a hugely stressful time,” Jo says. “No-one knew what would happen to the baby. I was in a lot of pain so they were very concerned for me, too.”
Samuel was born by caesarean section with three surgeons present.
“He weighed just 3lbs 6oz, and was not much bigger than my hand,” Jo says. “I remember coming out of anaesthetic and being told that we had a little baby boy. We didn’t know beforehand if we were having a boy or a girl, and had not even thought about names!”
While Jo stayed in hospital for 10 days, little Samuel spent his first five weeks in hospital. “It was actually a relief that he was in intensive care,” Jo says. “I knew he was in the best possible hands, being cared for when I was recovering from surgery.”
Jo recalls how the kindness of the nurses made a huge difference during this difficult time. “They wheeled me in my hospital bed up to the incubator so I could see my baby. I was too unwell to hold him for the first 48 hours. But the first time they laid Samuel on my chest was wonderful. I could feel his breathing and heart rate calm.”
Jo and Will were aware that the earlier a baby is born, the higher the chance of serious health complications and lifelong disabilities, but doctors could give no predictions. “We were simply told that, at 30 weeks, you never quite know what the future is going to hold,” says Jo.
Happily, Samuel is now a thriving two-year-old and Jo, who lives near Faversham in Kent, is expecting another baby.
Jo says: “As the mother of a child who was born at just 30 weeks old, I’m thrilled to see Action Medical Research supporting this chronically under-funded area of research. I only wish that I had been forewarned that Sam was going to be born early so I could prepare myself for the mental anguish that follows when you see your tiny baby in special care. I wish the researchers well and look forward to hearing about the results.”
** Ends **
Notes to Editors
- World Prematurity Day is on Thursday, 17 November 2016
- Professor Nigel Klein BSc MB BS MRCP PhD FRCPCH is Professor and Consultant in Paediatric Infectious Diseases & Immunology at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, London, and the Institute of Child Health, UCL.
- For more information about this study please go to: https://www.action.org.uk/research/premature-birth-predicting-whos-risk
Hi res photos can be downloaded here
Professor Nigel Klein:
Samuel Dawes as a newborn baby weighing just 3lbs 6oz in August 2014:
Samuel aged three months with mum Jo Dawes and dad Will Dawes:
Samuel aged two in October 2016:
1. WHO Preterm birth. Fact sheet No 363. Updated November 2015. www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs363/en/ Website accessed 03 August 2016.
2. Office for National Statistics. Childhood mortality in England and Wales 2014. Table 6. http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/datasets/childmortalitystatisticschildhoodinfantandperinatalchildhoodinfantandperinatalmortalityinenglandandwalesWebsite accessed 03 August 2016
3. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research agency. Registrar General Annual Report 2014 – Section 4 Stillbirths and Infant Deaths (Excel files) Table 4.5. http://www.nisra.gov.uk/demography/default.asp99.htm Website accessed 03 August 2016.
4. National Records for Scotland. Vital Events Reference Tables 2014. Section 4: Stillbirths and infant deaths. Table 4.5: Infant deaths, by sex and cause, Scotland, 2004 to 2014. http://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/statistics-and-data/statistics/statistics-by-theme/vital-events/general-publications/vital-events-reference-tables/2014/section-4-stillbirths-and-infant-deaths Website accessed 03 August 2016
5. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Preterm labour and birth final scope April 2013. http://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/gid-cgwave0660/resources/preterm-labour-and-birth-final-scope2 Website accessed 15 August 2016
6. Office for National Statistics. Statistical bulletin: Birth Summary Tables, England and Wales: 2015. Live births, stillbirths, and the intensity of childbearing measured by the total fertility rate. http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/livebirths/bulletins/birthsummarytablesenglandandwales/2015Website accessed 15 August 2016.
7. ISD Scotland Data Tables (2015 data). Maternity and Births. Table 5 - Live births (all, singleton and multiple) by birthweight and gestation. http://www.isdscotland.org/Health-Topics/Maternity-and-Births/Publications/data-tables.asp?id=1543#1543 Website accessed 15 August 2016.
8. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Births. Live births 1887-2014. http://www.nisra.gov.uk/demography/default.asp8.htm Website accessed 15 August 2016.
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About the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (ICH)
The UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health is part of the Faculty of Population Health Sciences within the School of Life and Medical Sciences at UCL. Together with its clinical partner Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children (GOSH), it forms the largest concentration of children's health research in Europe.
For more information visit www.ucl.ac.uk/ich