Developing a new test to identify women at risk of premature birth

Developing a new test to identify
women at risk of premature birth.

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.

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.

Dr 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. She hopes this will help save children’s lives and reduce the risk of long-term complications from being born too soon.

Building a better understanding of how a woman's body fights mild vaginal infections during pregnancy could open up new ways to reduce a woman’s risk of premature birth.

Professor Rachel Tribe

The project

There are many different reasons for premature birth, but often the causes are not fully understood. Women who give birth very early – before 34 weeks of pregnancy – often have a mild infection in their vagina, but some women with similar infections still give birth at full term.

The team think that tiny spherical structures called exosomes released by cells lining the vagina are key in defending against mild infections by alerting neighbouring cells to the bacterial invasion.

The researchers will examine this exosome defence system in samples collected from women in early pregnancy – comparing those who have straightforward pregnancies to those who deliver preterm.

They are also planning a series of laboratory experiments to improve their understanding of how exosomes work and how they may help protect pregnant women from complications.

We hope to identify a specific signature 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

The grant

Project Leader: Professor Rachel M Tribe, PhD, FPhysiol, FRSB.

Location: Department of Women and Children’s Health, St Thomas’ Hospital, King’s College London

Project duration: 2 years

Date awarded: 20 November 2017

Project start date: 1 October 2018

Project end date: 30 October 2020

Grant amount: £200,000

* Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, this project is extended until end of March 2021.

Borne and Action Medical Research are jointly funding this project.