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

Our researchers want to know if we can test vaginal fluid early in pregnancy to find out which women have vaginal infections that are likely to cause their baby to come too soon.
  • Author's list

    Prof Rachel Tribe, Dr Holly Jenkins, Prof Andrew Shennan, Dr Natasha Hezelgrave, Dr James Mason, Dr Carlos Salomon

Start: 2018

End: 2020

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 packages called exosomes, which carry ‘biological messages’ to tell nearby cells about the infection.

Our researchers think that this process could be linked to premature birth, although we don’t know enough about how this works.

What’s happening in this project?

By looking at samples of vaginal fluid, scientists funded by Tommy’s have already found 25 different biological messages carried in the exosomes of women who go on to give birth prematurely.

Our scientists are now going to study these exosomes in much more detail. They’ll compare the exosomes found in early pregnancy from women who give birth prematurely, with those from women who give birth at term, to see if they could be used to predict the risk of premature birth. The team are also going to look at how these exosomes change the behaviour of vaginal cells grown in the laboratory.

What difference will this project make?

By studying exosomes, our 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.