You are here:

Preventing brain injury in premature babies

Published on


In the UK, around 61,000 babies are born prematurely each year and sadly, more than 1,000 will die.1-7 Children who survive can experience lifelong conditions such as cerebral palsy, learning difficulties, blindness and hearing loss. Evidence suggests that bacteria can pass into the womb and trigger inflammation, which can cause early labour and damage the baby’s developing brain. Professor Donald Peebles at University College London is developing an innovative new gene therapy that could help prevent preterm birth and protect the baby’s brain. He is now carrying out laboratory tests to investigate the effectiveness of this potential new treatment.

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 will be born premature, before 37 weeks of pregnancy.1-8 And, despite extensive research over recent years, these numbers are not falling.9

Tragically, being born too soon is the biggest cause of newborn death.10 And premature birth is not just a fight for life. Many children, particularly those born before 32 weeks of pregnancy, will grow up experiencing serious, long-term consequences – including cerebral palsy, learning difficulties, blindness and hearing loss.

What causes premature birth is often unknown. But evidence suggests that infection is involved in four out of 10 women who experience an unexpected early labour.11

“Bacteria, usually found inside the mother’s vagina, can sometimes get through the neck of the womb – the cervix – and into the womb where the baby is growing,” says Professor Peebles. “This is bad news, as this infection can trigger inflammation that may cause premature birth and damage to the developing baby’s brain.”

How could this research help?

“We are aiming to develop a new treatment that can help prevent bacteria getting into the womb,” says Professor Peebles. “Our hope is it 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.”

Anti-bacterial molecules produced in the cervix help to stop bacteria from getting through. The team are developing a new gene therapy that is designed to boost these natural defences, helping to protect the womb from infection.

“We are now planning the next stage of our laboratory tests, to investigate if our innovative new approach can prevent bacterial damage to the developing fetal brain,” says Professor Peebles. “And importantly, we also need to confirm that it is safe for both mother and baby.”

“If our results continue to show promise, we aim to take this potential new treatment into clinical trials within the next five years,” says Professor Peebles.


  1. Office for National Statistics: [website accessed 12 December 2017]
  2. National Records of Scotland: 2016 Births, Deaths and Other Vital Events - Preliminary Annual Figures: [website accessed 12 December 2017]
  3. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Births. Live births 1887-2016. [website accessed 12 December 2017]
  4. National Institute for Clinical Excellence: Preterm labour and birth final scope April 2013
  5. Office for National Statistics. Childhood mortality in England and Wales 2014. Table 6.  [website accessed 12 December 2017]
  6. National Records for Scotland. Section 4: Stillbirths and Infant deaths:  [website accessed 12 December 2017]
  7. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Registrar General Annual Report 2015 – Stillbirths and Infant Deaths: [website accessed 12 December 2017]
  8. Bliss charity: [website accessed 06 December 2017]
  9. House of Commons Library; World Prematurity Day 2015, Debate Pack CDP 2015/104:
  10. Blencowe H et al. Born too soon: the global epidemiology of 15 million preterm birth. Reproductive Health 2013; 10 Suppl 1 S2
  11. Romero R et al. The role of infection in preterm labour and delivery. Paediatrics Perinatal Epidemiology 2001; 15 Suppl 2 41-56.





Project Leader Professor Donald M Peebles, MA MBBS MD FRCOG
Project Team Dr Simon N Waddington, BSc MSc PhDDr Natalie Suff, BSc MBBCh MRCOGDr Ahad A Rahim, BSc PhD
Project Location Department of Maternal and Fetal Medicine, Institute for Women’s Health, University College London
Project Location Other School of Pharmacy, University College London
Project duration Two years
Date awarded 21 November 2017
Project start date 1 October 2018
Project end date 30 September 2022
Grant amount £141,949
Grant code GN2647


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.