identifying women at risk of preterm birth

INSTITUTION: Department of Women and Children’s Health, St Thomas’ Hospital; King’s College London and Institute of Pharmaceutical Science, King’s College London
RESEARCHERS: Professor Rachel Tribe, Dr Natasha Hezelgrave, Professor Andy Shennan, Dr James Mason

Although the causes of preterm birth are often not understood, one factor may be how a woman’s body deals with mild vaginal infections during pregnancy.

Through this project, jointly funded by Borne and Action Medical Research, Professor Rachel Tribe at King’s College London is aiming to develop a new screening test that can help identify pregnant women who are at increased risk of early delivery.

about the research

In a project funded by Borne and Action Medical Research in 2017, Professor Tribe’s team are studying exosomes, tiny spherical structures (now known as extracellular vesicles, EVs) that are released from cells in the vagina, cervix and placenta. In response to infections, the EVs alert other cells to produce defences against invading pathogens by releasing their contents (proteins, lipids and micro RNAs).

The team seeks to characterise exosomes found in cervical-vaginal fluid at various stages of pregnancy, hoping to identify a pattern in the exosomes of women most likely to have a preterm birth.

“If we can develop this into a new test for women in early pregnancy, identifying those at risk would enable appropriate steps to be taken to protect their baby from being born too soon.”

– Professor Rachel Tribe


As a result of Borne and Action Medical Research funding, the team has collaborated internationally with other research institutions and established connections with several companies to use cutting edge technologies to determine that the EVs in cervico-vaginal fluid (CVF) are not as originally suggested.

They have analysed CVF samples from pregnant women and have found the small EVs to be even smaller entities /microparticles which seem to be unique.

The next steps were to revise the methods for isolation, analysis and validation of EVs for samples from more women and ultimately validate a new biomarker for prediction of preterm birth which Professor Tribe hopes will help save children’s lives and reduce the risk of long-term complications from being born too soon.

This project has advanced the characterisation of extracellular vesicles (EVs) found in cervico-vaginal fluid (CVF) in determining their ability to modulate the immune system in pregnancy.

Other outcomes from the research include a successful application for a NIHR Biomedical Research Centre GSTT and KCL Bioinformatics PhD studentship and several keynote presentations at national and international conferences.

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