The Power of Research

How our research into predicting and preventing premature birth has made real change for families and saved babies’ lives.

Why we need research  

Premature birth is a huge problem, with around 53,000 babies being born prematurely every year. That’s 6 babies every hour or 145 a day -enough to fill Wembley Arena more than 4 times over. While most premature babies survive, prematurity is still the most significant cause of death in children under the age of 5 in the UK.  

It can have a long-term impact on the health of mum too, leading to a higher risk of a future premature birth, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The psychological impact on parents is also huge, with many parents telling us they felt guilty or like they had failed after having their baby early.  

Tommy’s was founded in 1992 by two obstetricians - Dr Ian Fergusson and Dr Anthony Kenney – their patient, Lucy Nelson, who couldn’t and wouldn’t accept the lack of answers surrounding premature birth. They decided to start a campaign raising money for pregnancy research projects. That campaign grew into Tommy’s charity, and premature birth research is still at the forefront of what we do.  

Over the last 30 years, we’ve made some amazing discoveries to prevent premature birth and help more families take home a healthy baby, and we remain the leading charity funder of pregnancy research today.  

Transforming the way we identify who’s at risk  

Our team at the Tommy’s Preterm Birth Surveillance Clinic  in London developed the ground-breaking QUiPP app. This is a clinical tool that helps doctors to analyse different factors that affect a woman or birthing person’s risk of premature birth. This includes things like cervical length, whether there’s a history of premature birth and the amount of a protein called fetal fibronectin.  

“Fetal fibronectin is a special protein made by babies’ cells in the womb and acts as a ‘glue’ to keep the amniotic sac attached to the lining of the womb.  

If a baby is likely to be born early, the protein is released into the vagina, which can then be picked up using a swab. Previous research by Tommy’s found  fetal fibronectin should only appear at certain points in pregnancy, and high levels of the protein are directly related to higher risk of premature birth.” 

Professor Andy Shennan, Tommy’s Chair for Maternal and Fetal Health.  

92% of women surveyed found QUiPP helped them to better understand their risk of premature birth and gave them reassurance during a stressful time. We’re proud that the app is used across the UK today by health professionals, helping to improve care and support.

This tool also feeds into the Tommy’s Pathway, developed by our National Centre for Maternity Improvement. This online medical tool helps healthcare providers to work out which pregnant women and birthing people are most at risk of giving birth prematurely or of developing pregnancy complications that can lead to stillbirth.  

Through research across our national centres, Tommy’s is at the forefront of getting scientific findings turned into changes in clinical practice to improve care and support for families.  

Preventing more families experiencing baby loss  

Sometimes a baby is born too early due to a weakness in the cervix which means it opens too soon. A vaginal stitch is commonly placed in women and birthing people with a history of very early birth, but sometimes the stitch doesn’t work. If that happens, they may still experience late miscarriage, with their baby arriving too early to survive.

The MAVRIC study was a UK-wide trial that looked at where a vaginal stitch hadn’t worked previously, a stitch placed higher up in the cervix (a transabdominal cerclage or TAC) could reduce the risk of late miscarriage and premature birth. They found:  

  • This higher stitch was effective at preventing late pregnancy loss are premature birth  
  • Women and birthing people who received the abdominal stitch were more likely to have a baby that survives, and less likely to give birth before 32 weeks.  

Diagram showing different types of cerclages (stitches) that can be used to reduce the risk of late miscarriage and premature birth.

The results of this research give hope to many families at risk of premature birth, especially those who may have lost babies in the past.

This research has helped Rumbi who, after 2 heartbreaking losses, sought advice from Tommy's. She was advised to have a pre-pregnancy TAC in 2019, and welcomed her son Levi the next year

3 years after becoming a mum, I'm still advocating because that information needs to be available. Mothers need to be signposted to those that can help, like Tommy's, because that's the only way to spare more women losing a child - Rumbi

Predicting premature labour by looking at infection

Premature birth can be caused by lots of different things, but previous research shows it can be linked with infection. Infection and inflammation can shorten the cervix, which puts the baby at risk of premature birth. Our researchers wanted to find out if there are any markers in the vagina and cervix that can tell us if there is an infection, and therefore a risk of premature birth.  

Our team found that the amount of a substance called elafin, which can help fight off infection in the vagina, was higher in women who gave birth before 37 weeks. They also found a link between the levels of elafin and premature birth before 34 weeks. By testing for this substance could tell doctors if there’s an infection and therefore a higher risk of premature birth.  

More must be done

We’ve achieved a lot together since Tommy’s was founded, but we know that there are still too many babies being born too soon.  

That’s why we’re opening the Tommy’s National Centre for Preterm Birth Research, run by a team of leading experts who are committed to stopping the heartbreak of early birth. We need to raise £500,000 a year to fund this world-leading facility, but with the support of people like you, we know we can do it.  

Our new centre is dedicated to understanding the causes of premature birth and discovering innovative ways to prevent it. Through ground-breaking research, funded by people like you, we’ll help give parents the answers they’ve been looking for.  

“Baby loss and pregnancy complications, such as premature birth, devastate people’s lives. That’s why we desperately need more research into effective tests and treatments to give hope to thousands of families across the UK. Through our new research centre, we will deliver the step-change needed to give a new generation a better start in life.” 

Kath Abrahams, Chief Executive of Tommy’s.  

Together, we will save babies’ lives. This is the power of research.