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Premature Births May Be Triggered by Immune System

Update Date: Mar 05, 2013 12:09 PM EST

Preterm births are a serious problem. Though only 1 in 9 babies are born prematurely in the United States, they make up a majority of infant deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, premature birth raises a baby's risk for a variety of conditions, like intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy and hearing loss. Unfortunately, though premature birth is a serious concern, experts still have no full idea about why it happens. Now, a recent study conducted by the University of Sheffield, the University of Nottingham and the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, all in the United Kingdom, believe that they may have started to shade in an answer. Premature delivery, they theorize, may be triggered by the immune system.

Premature delivery can be slowed temporarily by drugs, so researchers focused on the drugs themselves. According to the BBC, they tested experimental drugs, called histone deacetylase inhibitors, on tissue samples from the womb. The drugs turned on genes that made the womb relax, which would be desirable in preventing a premature birth. However, the chemicals produced during inflammation turned those genes off, overriding the drugs and would spur contractions. Inflammation is a response triggered by the immune system, and any drugs that would attempt to hold back labor would need to target that body response.

"We really don't know what causes a woman to go into labour, essentially after her womb has had nine months gestation, how does it know 'Game over, time to start contracting'?" Neil Chapman, one of the study authors, said to BBC. "The process of human labour is such a big process that it is likely many cell functions must be controlled simultaneously: all the genes saying 'relax' being turned off and everything saying 'contract' being turned on. If inflammation is part of that process then drugs will need to target that as well. Due to the complexity of the whole process, however, it's not going to be like a light switch that we can just turn on or off."

The findings from the study could also be used to discover why some women have difficulty starting labor as well.

The study was published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry.

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