Potassium channels: a new target for preventing premature birth?

Dr Rachel Tribe, Dr Mariola Zaleska and collaborators

Researchers in Tommy’s London centre have shown that 'switching on' a channel in the cells of the womb could stop early contractions.

There is currently no effective treatment for women who spontaneously start labour too early. Drugs that stop the womb from contracting are called tocolytics – and finding effective ones is key to preventing early labour.

The Medical Research Council and National Institute for Health Research funded a study in Tommy’s London centre that looked at the role of 'potassium channels' in womb contractions. These are proteins that form small pores in cells’ membranes, allowing potassium in and out. However, they aren’t always open: the channels are 'voltage-gated,' meaning they open and close depending on the voltage of their surroundings.

Researchers found that using drugs to 'switch on' a particular potassium channel – the Kv7 channel – can help the muscle of the womb to relax, stopping early contractions. In mice, this helped delay labour and delivery, showing that it is a promising way of preventing premature birth.

We hope to pursue this project further, looking more closely at the structure of the Kv7 channel and working with pharmaceutical companies to translate this research into clinical practice.

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This study takes place in a Tommy's funded centre and is funded by the Medical Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research's Clinical Research Network

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