You are here:

Preterm birth: developing immunotherapy to prevent spontaneous preterm birth

Published on


Around 60,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK each year.[1-2] While advances in treatment have led to improved survival, preterm babies have an increased risk of life-long disabilities. There is often no obvious reason for a preterm birth – and it could be that problems with the mother’s immune system, inflammation and/or infection are involved. 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.

Action Medical Research and Borne are jointly funding this research.

How are children’s lives affected now?

Around one in every 13 babies in the UK is born too soon – before 37 weeks of pregnancy.1,2 Babies who survive preterm birth have an increased risk of long-term complications including cerebral palsy and learning difficulties.

“The causes of preterm birth are complex and it’s not always possible to explain why it happens,” says Professor Tribe. “But certain factors are known to increase the risk of being born early, such as infection and inflammation in the mother.”

During early pregnancy, the mother’s body must accept the baby in the womb. Achieving this involves suppressing her natural immune defences – and specialised cells in the womb lining called decidual stromal cells (DSCs) are known to play an important role in this process.

“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,” says Professor Tribe.

How could this research help?

“We are aiming to develop a new treatment approach to help prevent preterm birth – this will involve modifying the mother’s immune and inflammatory responses during pregnancy,” says Professor Tribe.

The team is collaborating with researchers in Sweden who have successfully isolated human decidual stromal cells (hDSCs) from full-term placental tissue and shown they can suppress immune cell growth in the laboratory.

“Using laboratory models, we will now explore if injecting hDSCs into the mother during pregnancy can help reduce inflammation and prevent preterm birth,” says Professor Tribe.

The hope is that hDSCs could prove to be a safe and effective new treatment for preterm birth – and encouragingly, these cells are already being used successfully to treat other inflammatory-related conditions.

This research provides an important first step towards developing a new immunotherapy that could be used to help prevent spontaneous preterm birth and lead to happier outcomes for many babies and their families.

Professor Tribe


  1. Office for National Statistics, Vital statistics in the UK: births, deaths and marriages - 2019 [website accessed 29 March 2021]
  2. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Preterm labour and birth final scope April 2013
Project Leader Professor Rachel M Tribe, BSc Sp Hons PhD
Location Department of Women and Children’s Health, St Thomas’ Hospital Campus, King’s College London
Project Team Dr Natalie Suff, BSc MBBCh MRCOG PhD
Dr Deena L Gibbons, BSc Hons PhD
Other Locations Peter Gorer Department of Immunobiology, School of Immunology and Microbial Sciences, Guy’s Hospital, King’s College London
Grant Awarded
Grant Amount £132,359
Start Date
End Date
Duration 18 months
Grant Code (GN number) GN2870


We do not provide medical advice. If you would like more information about a condition or would like to talk to someone about your health, contact NHS Choices or speak to your GP.