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Dr Darren Smith Necrotising enterocolitis NEC
Dr Darren Smith, University of Northumbria at Newcastle

Protecting preterm babies from NEC - an often fatal bowel disease

Serious bowel disease including necrotising enterocolitis (NEC) and blood infection (sepsis) are the commonest cause of death after the first week of life in preterm babies. The causes are not well understood, but both are thought to be linked to an ‘imbalance’ in the baby’s gut bacteria.

Breast fed babies are less likely to develop these infections, so researchers, led by Dr Darren Smith, at University of Northumbria are investigating how breast milk exerts its protective effects, and in particular, if it helps preterm infants develop a healthy range of gut bacteria.

Better understanding of the causes of NEC and infections could help doctors identify babies most at risk of poor outcomes. And in the longer term, this work could lead to improvements in neonatal care and treatment to promote a healthy gut and protect pre-term babies from life-threatening illness.

Significant progress developing a test to predict risk of early labour

Research funded by Action in 2014 has made important steps towards developing a blood test that could be used in early pregnancy to identify women who are at high risk of going into labour too soon.

Research Training Fellow Dr Joanna Cook investigated the role of naturally occurring substances called microRNAs, which seem to be involved in controlling when a woman goes into labour. These can be detected in the blood and, importantly, their levels have been found to be different in women who go on to develop cervical weakness – a known cause of premature birth. If diagnosed early enough cervical weakness can be treated and pregnancy prolonged.

These promising results will now be tested in a larger group of women. If successful, it is hoped that a commercially available test would be ready in around five years.

Preventing brain injury in premature babies

Professor Donald Peebles’ research at University College London aims to develop an innovative new treatment to help prevent infection-related premature birth and injury to the developing baby’s brain, helping to save and change more babies lives. We are co-funding this project with Borne.

"Our hope is that the treatment could both reduce the numbers of premature births, as well as reduce the risk of brain damage and its long-lasting impact on children’s lives," explains Professor Peebles.

“If our results continue to show promise, we aim to take this potential new treatment into clinical trials within the next five years.”

Professor Rachel Tribe

Working to identify women at risk of premature birth

Although the causes of preterm birth are often not understood, one factor may be how a woman’s body deals with infections during pregnancy. “Developing a better understanding about this should help us find new ways to reduce a woman’s risk of premature birth and the heartache it can cause," explains Professor Rachel Tribe, of King’s College, London.

Professor Tribe’s research, co-funded with Borne, hopes to develop a new screening test that can help identify pregnant women who are at increased risk of early delivery. If successful, this test would enable the appropriate steps to be taken to protect babies from being born too soon – saving more lives and reducing the risk of long-term complications.

"High quality and focused research is vital if we are to save lives and make a real difference to this growing global problem.”

Testing a new treatment to delay early labour

Treatment with a hormone called progesterone can reduce a woman’s risk of giving birth early, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Professor Mark Johnson, of Imperial College London, is investigating whether combination treatment with progesterone and a medicine called aminophylline works better.

The new treatment is being tested on a small group of pregnant women who are known to be at high risk of going into labour too early. If it proves successful, the team will go on to set up a much larger clinical trial in many more women.

“Our ultimate goal is to stop babies from being born too soon, save their lives and protect them from disability,” says Professor Johnson.

A history of research success

At Action Medical Research, we fight for answers. Answers that can lead to cures, treatments and medical breakthroughs for some of the toughest fights our children face.

Take a look at our history of funding groundbreaking research that has benefited thousands of babies and their families.