The genetics of premature birth

Jane Norman, Adriano Rossi, Philippa Saunders, Sara Rinaldi

Scientists have found that certain genes become more active during preterm labour.

Tommy's researchers have been trying to understand the signals that pass between mother and baby at the time labour starts. These are related to the genes that are active in the lining of the womb during pregnancy.

Genes are responsible for all of the chemical signals our body makes: they are instructions for building proteins block by block. Genes aren’t static: they can respond to their environment by making more or less of the proteins they code for. At the beginning of labour, some genes that are active in the lining of the womb change. This means that the signals that are passing between mother and baby are different. We think that by looking at these signals, we can find differences between women who go into early labour and women who don't. In the future, this could be used to help stop women from going into premature labour.

Scientists collected samples of this lining from four groups of women:

  • Women at their full term who had gone into labour
  • Women at their full term who had not gone into labour
  • Women before their full term who had gone into labour (preterm labour)
  • Women before their full term who had not gone into labour

By looking at the active genes in these samples, we can see that going into labour is connected to an inflammatory response. Genes that make inflammatory signals – chemical signals released into the body in response to infection or other harmful substances – are more active during both normal and early labour. 

In women who went into early labour, scientists also found that certain genes were more active than in women who went into labour after 37 weeks. When this research is complete, the results could be used to find new ways of stopping premature labour. We are now finishing analysis of the genes that were more or less active than usual, and hope to have this research ready for publication very soon. 

Thanks for your interest in our research

Tommy's funds research across the UK investigating the reasons for pregnancy complications and loss. Maternal and fetal research is underfunded and we need your support to continue. There are many small and large ways you can support us, find out more here.


This study takes place in a Tommy's centre and is funded by Tommy's and the Medical Research Council

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