Predicting premature labour: the link between vaginal infections and early birth

Our researchers have contributed biological samples from the INSIGHT study to a project funded by the charities Action Medical Research and Borne. In this study, vaginal fluid is being tested early in pregnancy to see if there is a biological fingerprint that can be used to predict whether a woman is likely to give birth prematurely.
  • Authors list

    Professor Rachel Tribe, Dr Holly Jenkins, Professor Andrew Shennan, Dr Natasha Hezelgrave, Dr James Mason, Dr Carlos Salomon, Paul Seed

    Start date: 2018
    End date: 2021

  • Research centre

  • Research status

    Ongoing projects

Why do we need this research?

The effects of premature birth can be devastating. When a baby is born too soon, it has not finished developing and is not ready for life outside the womb. This means the baby may die or have serious health problems.

We want to identify women who are at risk of premature birth so that we can provide them with better care and make sure they receive the treatments they need to delay birth for as long as possible.

Infection is a cause of premature birth

Women who give birth to babies very early (before 34 weeks) often have a mild infection in their vagina. When infection is present, the cells of the vagina release small round structures called exosomes that carry ‘biological messages’ to tell nearby cells about the infection.

Scientists think that this process could be linked to premature birth and want to find out more about how this works.

What’s happening in this project?

In order to study exosomes in much more detail, biological samples taken from pregnant women during the INSIGHT study are being analysed as part of another study that is funded by the charities Action Medical Research and Borne. By focusing on samples of vaginal fluid (taken between 10 and 24 weeks of pregnancy) from 40 women who had a premature birth and 40 women who gave birth at term, the team want to find out if there are any differences in the biological messages found in the exosomes from the two groups of women. The researchers also want to find out if these exosomes change the behaviour of vaginal cells grown in the lab.

What difference will this project make?

By studying exosomes, the researchers hope to identify a biological fingerprint in vaginal fluid that can be used early in pregnancy to predict whether a woman is likely to give birth prematurely. This could help doctors to intervene early and reduce the number of babies born too soon.

The devastating effect of premature birth

Premature birth is the leading cause of infant death in the UK. Babies who survive being born too soon can suffer lifelong consequences for their health.Parents of premature babies suffer a terrible emotional toll, spending up to 3 months in NICU watching their tiny baby struggle to survive.

'Our daughter Tilly lived for 10 minutes in her daddy's strong arms. She took her last breath in his arms knowing nothing but love. I didn't get to see her when she was alive as I suffered complications which put me in theatre.'

Alexis, mother to Tilly, born prematurely

Get our research updates

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.