New study could lead to new drugs to prevent premature birth

Researchers at The University of Nottingham have been awarded more than £95,000 for a study that could lead to new drugs to prevent babies from being born prematurely.

Dr Raheela Khan, of the University’s Academic Division of Obstetrics and Gynaecology based at the newly-opened University of Nottingham Medical School at Derby, is working with colleagues Dr Balwir Matharoo-Ball and Dr Dave Barratt in the University’s School of Pharmacy on the research looking at what makes some women go into labour before their baby is due.

Pre-term labour — babies who are born before 37 weeks — accounts for between six and 10 per cent of all pregnancies. Babies born very prematurely, before 32 weeks, have an increased risk of medical and developmental problems — including disabilities, learning difficulties, eye defects and respiratory disease.

Neonatal intensive care for each premature baby born in the UK costs the NHS thousands of pounds every day and in April 2003 the Government announced that it was to provide £70 million over three years to allow for the purchase of 75 new cots and other specialist equipment.

Currently, drugs that are used to stop contractions in women who go into labour early are ineffective and can cause moderate to severe side effects and, in a very small number of cases, may even result in maternal death.

The Nottingham researchers are looking at ways of using the body’s natural processes that control contractions during labour to design more effective drugs in the future.

Dr Khan said: "The saying goes that the mother is the ideal incubator and, if their body is healthy until the due date, then it’s where the baby should stay. However, once labour starts too early then it is extremely difficult to stop.

Funded with £95,930 from Action Medical Research, the two-year research project will find out more about what triggers labour and in particular will focus on epoxyeicosatrienoic acids (EETs), products of a membrane fatty acid, that may play an important role in keeping the myometrium — the main muscle that contracts to deliver the baby — relaxed during pregnancy.

If insufficient amounts of these are produced it can mean the mother goes into early labour. Once the researchers know more about how this process works they hope that drugs could be produced that mimic the effects of the acids and could be used to stop contractions in women in pre-term labour.

Women who are admitted into Derby City Hospital, where the University’s new Medical School is based, for a full-term caesarean section are being recruited as a control group and muscle biopsies taken with their consent will be compared to those from pre-term women recruited by clinicians at the hospital. The researchers will be looking at the differences in the muscle tissue to find out why some of the women may have had their babies too early.

Researchers have also been awarded a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, worth in the region of £225,000, for a similar project looking at normal labour.

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