An anti-cancer drug could potentially be the first effective treatment for the many thousands of premature births that occur worldwide each year, scientists revealed yesterday.
The drug, which has been used to treat types of cancer including breast, bowel and lung, has been found in the laboratory to control levels of a hormone receptor protein in the womb, which is linked with giving birth.
The findings, from a research team at Newcastle University, should bring hope to the women who see their premature babies die or suffer from physical or mental disability.
The research, funded by the charity Action Medical Research, is published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
In the UK each year, about 60,000 pregnancies end with premature births of less than 37 weeks gestation.
This is the highest rate in Western Europe and costs the NHS millions of pounds each year. The problem is worse in the developing world.
Drugs used to treat women who give birth prematurely are relatively ineffective, and often have dangerous side-effects, such as heart problems in mother and baby.
The research team examined the effect that the anti-cancer drug Trichostatin A - better known as TSA - had on the levels of receptors on human smooth muscle cells of the womb, or uterus, that are affected by the pregnancy hormone hCG ( human chorionic gonadotrophin).
During pregnancy, the placenta releases large amounts of hCG. This activates the CG/ LH receptors on the muscle cells of the womb to produce a muscle relaxant, which in turn prevents contractions and keeps the uterus in a relaxed state.
It is known that decreases in hCG receptor levels may lead to contractions in the womb and labour.
Women whose babies are born prematurely experience an acute drop in the numbers of the CG/LH receptors and are thus less responsive to the hCG hormone.
Laboratory tests carried out by the Newcastle University team found that TSA is able to increase numbers of the CG/LH receptors in uterine smooth muscle cells.
The researchers are now seeking funding for clinical trials to assess whether TSA would work in women who are due to give birth prematurely, or in those who are at high risk of having a premature baby.
Research leader Dr Nick Europe- Finner said: "Many people think that premature births are no longer a problem and would be astonished to know that, even in a sophisticated, developed nation like the UK, there are still around ten per cent of births which are classed as premature."