Pre-term birth is a major health concern, which can cause death or significant health problems later in life. In many cases, it happens unpredictably and health professionals struggle to take care of the new born baby and the mother. However, for those cases when pre-term birth can be predicted, scientists from the University of Adelaide have developed a drug treatment to prevent it.
Scientists tested this drug and revealed that it can prevent pre-term birth, although results are still preliminary. The treatment addresses inflammatory mechanisms behind the pre-term birth. The drug itself is not new and its abilities to switch off pro-inflammatory pathways. Scientists conducted experiment with pregnant mice and found that pre-term birth with all its negative consequences was entirely prevented. This is very promising news, since pre-term birth, characterized as being born at less than 37 weeks’ gestation, is a major problem, accounting for a major part of death cases of children under five years of age. Every year, 12 % of babies are born pre-term, which causes 1.1 million deaths.
50 % of pre-term birth cases are caused by bacterial infection, other causes include physical injury or stress, carrying twins or triplets, and environmental toxins. All of these reasons lead to “inflammatory cascade”, triggered by Toll-Like receptor 4 (TLR4), activating mother’s immune system. TLR4 is usually useful in our immune system, but in case of pregnancy it can cause some harm. However, good thing is that science does have tools to block TLR4 activity and so, potentially, prevent pre-term birth. One of these tools is a drug, called “(+)-naloxone”, which was tested during this study.
Experiments with mice models showed that (+)-naloxone is able to prevent pre-term birth triggered by bacteria. Furthermore, scientists discovered that this drug also helps preventing stillbirth and infant death shortly after birth and helps the baby to be born with higher birth weight. There are other drugs currently used, but this one could be started much earlier. Professor Sarah Robertson, lead author of the study, said: “By the time the conditions for pre-term birth have already arisen, it’s often too late for current treatments to do anything about it. What we really need is to stop the train at the station, as it were, before it can head down that track. Once it’s left the station it’s usually too late to stop it”.
Scientists say that this study is giving hope that soon pre-term births will be easily preventable using this drug in combination with antibiotics. If it can save at least some from that one million babies every year, it is going to be a long awaited breakthrough.