A team from University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK have found that the anti-cancer drug Trichostatin A (TSA), has the potential to control early labour contractions. They are optimistic the work, which is still in the early stages, will help to reduce the 70,000 premature births in the UK each year.
Many premature babies require special care and can face a lifetime of health problems, some of them very serious.
According to lead researcher Dr Nick Europe-Finner, premature birth is a huge problem, not just in the UK but across the globe, and currently there is no effective treatment.
He says that babies who are born too early can suffer problems throughout their lives, and prematurity costs the NHS millions of pounds each year.
Dr Europe-Finner says the drugs currently used to stop premature labour can have severe side effects for both mother and baby, including long-term heart problems.
He says their study has shown that the receptors that send messages to the muscles to make them relax during pregnancy can be regulated, and if those muscles remain relaxed, then early labour can be prevented.
During pregnancy a hormone called hCG is released by the placenta and it triggers muscle cells in the uterus to produce a natural relaxant.
However in some women the number of receptors on the surface of the muscle cells drops, reducing their ability to produce the relaxant, and this can lead to uterine contractions and early labour.
The Newcastle team has shown in laboratory tests that TSA can keep the number of cell receptors high.
The charity, Action Medical Research, is funding further work, which it is hoped will lead to clinical trials.
TSA is presently used to treat breast, bowel and lung cancer.
Mr Liu, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at City Hospital, Nottingham, does however urge caution as the relationship between hCG and production of the muscle relaxant was still not completely clear, and the causes of prematurity were complex.
He also stresses that much more work would be needed before an anti-cancer drug could be used to treat pregnant women.
He says that at this stage he would be circumspect about its utility, even if there is a proven physiological or pharmacological effect.
Professor David James, an expert in fetomaternal medicine at Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham, said the drug did indeed appear to have potential, but adds that many drugs and preparations have been put forward as the solution to preterm labour over the years but have failed to deliver.