Around 60,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK each year and sadly, more than 1,000 die as a result of being born too soon.[1-5] Children who survive are at an increased risk of cerebral palsy, visual impairment, hearing loss and learning difficulties. One way to prevent or delay preterm birth would be to give drugs that can prevent womb contractions – but unfortunately, these can put the mother or baby at risk of serious side effects. Professor Michael Taggart at Newcastle University is aiming to develop safer and more effective treatments that can stop premature contractions, reducing the risk of early birth.
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 prematurely – before 37 weeks of pregnancy have been completed.1,2 The earlier a baby is born, the higher their risk of death or serious medical complications that can leave them with lifelong disabilities.
“Although the causes of preterm birth are complex, it often occurs because the mother goes into spontaneous early labour,” says Professor Taggart.
Unfortunately, there are no treatments currently 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.
“We urgently need to develop safer, more effective treatments that can help stop premature labour,” says Professor Taggart. “Importantly, we need to make sure that these don’t expose the mother or baby to the risk of potentially serious side effects.”
How could this research help?
“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,” says Professor Taggart.
But this will require the scientists to develop a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms that activate womb muscle tissues to contract – and how these differ from similar processes in blood vessels of the womb and placenta.
"We've recently established that these three tissues react differently to certain drugs, suggesting they possess key differences at a molecular level that we could potentially exploit,” says Professor Taggart.
The team now plan to build on this work by using cutting-edge technologies to carry out sophisticated molecular analyses of tissue samples from the womb and placenta.
“We hope to identify new molecular targets that will aid the development of new drugs – or repurposing of existing drugs – that can more specifically act on womb muscle tissues,” says Professor Taggart.
- Vital statistics in the UK: births, deaths and marriages - 2018 update: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/datasets/vitalstatisticspopulationandhealthreferencetables [website accessed 13 June 2019]
- National Institute for Clinical Excellence: Preterm labour and birth final scope, April 2013: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng25/documents/preterm-labour-and-birth-final-scope2
- Office for National Statistics. Childhood mortality in England and Wales 2017, Table 6: http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/datasets/childmortalitystatisticschildhoodinfantandperinatalchildhoodinfantandperinatalmortalityinenglandandwales [website accessed 24 June 2019]
- National Records for Scotland. Section 4: Stillbirths and Infant deaths 2017: https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/statistics-and-data/statistics/statistics-by-theme/vital-events/general-publications/vital-events-reference-tables/2017/section-4-stillbirths-and-infant-deaths [website accessed 24 June 2019]
- Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Registrar General Annual Report 2017 – Stillbirths and Infant Deaths: https://www.nisra.gov.uk/publications/registrar-general-annual-report-2017-stillbirths-and-infant-deaths [website accessed 24 June 2019]
|Project Leader||Professor Michael J Taggart, BSc PhD FRSB|
|Location||Institute of Genetic Medicine, Newcastle University|
Professor Stephen Robson, MBBS MRCOG MD FRCP.
Dr Paul Ayuk, BSc MBBS PhD MRCOG.
Professor David Simpson, BSc PhD.
Institute of Cellular Medicine, Newcastle University.
Reproductive Health & Childbirth Specialty Group, Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Trust.
Centre for Experimental Medicine, Queen’s University Belfast.
|Grant Code (GN number)||GN2807|