Researchers at St George’s, University of London and King’s College, London have identified a new way of suppressing uterine muscle contractions, which could lead to novel treatments to help stop premature birth.

Premature birth accounts for around seven per cent of births in the UK, and is the single biggest killer of babies under one year old. Despite improved neonatal care and survival rates for babies born early, there has been no corresponding progress in reducing the incidence of premature birth. Drugs called tocolytics can slow labour, but those currently used only delay birth by 48 hours or so which has relatively little effect on a baby’s degree of maturation at birth.

 



This research – by Dr Iain Greenwood from the Division of Biomedical Sciences at St George’s, working with Dr Rachel Tribe and Dr Laura McCallum from King’s College London – established that specific potassium ion channels (Kv7 channels) influence contractility of the muscle in the uterus. The researchers then showed that a Kv7 channel activator retigabine – a drug already developed to treat epilepsy – could suppress contractions in the uterus.

Dr Greenwood said: “My group has been studying the impact of Kv7 channels in the vasculature for the past six years and we have published a number of key findings. Now this collaboration with Dr Tribe, who is an internationally renowned expert on uterine physiology, has produced a significant step forward in the search for future treatments for preterm labour.”

The findings were the conclusion of tests on uterine muscle samples donated by women undergoing caesarean section.

The research, funded by children’s health charity Action Medical Research and the baby charity Tommy’s, was part of a larger study published in the Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine this month.

Tracy Swinfield, director of research at Action Medical Research said: “Developing more effective tocolytic therapies would have major benefits for babies at risk of early birth and could help more babies be born at term.”

Babies born early often face difficulties with breathing, feeding and fighting infection, and spend months in special care. Many of those born very early go on to develop life-long conditions such as cerebral palsy, blindness, hearing loss and learning difficulties.

Jacqui Clinton, health campaigns director for Tommy's said: "The UK has the highest rate of premature birth in Western Europe. It can be a stressful experience for all involved and, in some cases, very premature babies may not survive or may go on to have long-term health problems. 

“As such as we are always looking at ways in which we can stop pre-term birth from happening in the first place, and are proud to be involved with research such as this which could help prevent babies being born too early."