Preventing brain injury in premature babies

Preventing brain injury in premature babies

Borne and Action Medical Research are jointly funding this project.  

The need

In the UK, over 60,000 babies are born prematurely each year and sadly, more than 1,000 will die. Children who survive can experience lifelong disabilities 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.

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. This is bad news, as this infection can trigger inflammation that may cause premature birth and damage to the developing baby’s brain.

Professor Donald Peebles

The project

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.

Evidence suggests that infection is involved in four out of 10 women who experience an unexpected early labour.  

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 aiming to develop a new treatment that can help prevent bacteria getting into the womb. 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.

Professor Donald Peebles

“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.

The grant

Project Leader: Professor Donald M Peebles, MA MBBS MD FRCOG

Location: Department of Maternal and Fetal Medicine, Institute for Women’s Health, University College London

Project duration: 2 years

Date awarded: 21 November 2017

Project start date: 1 October 2018

Project end date: 30 October 2020

Grant amount: £141,949

* Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, this project is extended until December 2020.

Borne and Action Medical Research are jointly funding this project.