Why do we need this research?
Premature birth can lead to health problems for the baby and is the leading cause of death in new‑borns. We need to find new ways to lower the risk of early labour.
What’s happening in this project?
Recently, Tommy’s helped fund a study into how we could use elafin, a natural substance in the body, to tell if a woman is likely to go into premature labour.
During pregnancy, cells in the walls of the vagina and cervix produce substances that help to fight infections. Our researchers tested whether one of these substances, elafin, could be used to tell whether or not early labour will take place.
2,000 women were recruited to the INSIGHT study, some of whom were at high risk of early labour based on their clinical history. To look at how elafin could affect early labour, doctors took samples of vaginal fluid, blood, and cells at different stages during the pregnancy.
Our researchers have found that the amount of elafin changes during pregnancy. Interestingly, they also found that the woman’s ethnicity also influenced the levels of elafin. They discovered that black women have more elafin than white women in early mid-pregnancy, and that this had an effect on the bacteria present in their vagina. They also found the link between elafin and preterm birth varied depending on the woman’s ethnicity. These results suggest that premature birth might have different causes in black and white women, something which the team are now investigating further.
In another part of this study, Tommy’s researchers are developing new ways to better understand the link between elafin, the bacteria present in the vagina, and the cells which line the cervix and vagina. To do this, our researchers are growing vaginal cells in the lab using special equipment which closely replicates the environment of the vagina. They are using this technique to study how different bacteria have different effects on the lining of the vagina, and what effect that might have on the risk of preterm labour.
What difference will this project make?
These projects will help us better understand the body’s natural defences to the bacteria present in the vagina, and how they might be linked to preterm labour. This work could lead to new ways to predict whether a woman is at risk of going into labour early, and maybe find ways to stop this happening. The hope is that this will ensure that fewer babies are born too early.
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Tommy's funds research across the UK investigating the reasons for pregnancy complications and loss. If you're interested in being kept updated about our research and news from Tommy's, click here.
More research projects
A recently published article, co-authored by Professor Catherine Williamson from Tommy’s Research Centre at King’s College London, suggests that certain pregnancy complications can indicate future health issues for women.
Tommy’s has received a grant from the UK Government’s Department for Health and Social Care to support the costs of its PregnancyHub information and support services throughout the summer, due to rising demand in the wake of coronavirus.
Although recruitment to some clinical trials had to be paused when coronavirus hit the UK, scientists at Tommy’s Research Centres across the UK are still hard at work, supporting women and families in our specialist clinics and sharing their latest studies with academic journals.
The day before Mother’s Day, and two days before the UK officially went into coronavirus lockdown, Zara Dawson found out she was having a miscarriage. Her third consecutive miscarriage in less than a year, and fourth consecutive loss, after losing her second son Jesse in 2018 to termination for medical reasons.