Understanding why pregnant women are at risk of sepsis

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition and is the leading cause of death in mothers before and after childbirth. Our researchers are working to understand why pregnant women are more vulnerable to infections so that they can find ways to stop them dying.
  • Author's list

    Dr Sara Van Boeckel, Dr Sarah Stock

    Start date: June 2016
    End date: May 2020

  • Research centre

  • Research status

    Completed projects

Why do we need this research?

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition caused by an extreme reaction to an infection. Sepsis during pregnancy and shortly after birth is the leading cause of maternal death in the UK. Research has shown that pregnant women are more vulnerable to infections such as flu or herpes, and more likely to suffer severe complications, but we don’t know why.

We need to better understand how a woman’s immune system changes during pregnancy so that we can treat infections better and prevent mothers from dying.

What happened in this project?

Researchers funded by Tommy’s have been studying a molecule called Toll-like receptor 9 – or TLR9 for short. TLR9 sits on the surface of immune cells and helps the immune system to recognise common infections.

By studying blood samples from pregnant women in their third trimester, the team found that the amount of TLR9 on the surface of a particular type of immune cell was lower than in women who were not pregnant. They also found that the immune system in these women does not respond in a normal way to bacterial DNA.

What difference will this project make?

The results of this project suggest that the immune system is dampened during the third trimester of pregnancy. This could explain why pregnant women are more susceptible to infections and life-threatening sepsis. Ultimately, a better understanding of the mechanisms involved could lead to new ways to treat infections and sepsis in pregnant women, and help to prevent maternal death.

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