Reducing the risk of preterm birth

Targeting therapies to delay preterm labour at the muscles in the womb

Borne and Action Medical Research are jointly funding this project.  

The need

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. 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.

Although the causes of preterm birth are complex, it often occurs because the mother goes into spontaneous early labour.

Professor Michael 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”, explains 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.”

The project

“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.

The grant

Project Leader: Professor Michael J Taggart, BSc PhD FRSB

Location: Institute of Genetic Medicine, Newcastle University

Project duration: 33 months. 

Grant amount: £197,990

Borne and Action Medical Research are jointly funding this project.