Of 600,000 live births per year in the UK, approximately 8,000 babies will weigh less than 1600g. Of average, about 1600 will die and at least 600 will develop a major handicap such as brain damage or cerebral palsy. Pre-term babies require intensive care which is extremely costly to the NHS, typically costing around £2500 a day to maintain a baby in an incubator. If the baby survives it is likely to be handicapped, often severely. Moreover, pre-term labour tends to repeat itself in each subsequent pregnancy. Most importantly, the effect of having such a fragile life can be devastating for the family. Not only is there immediate anxiety for the health and survival of the baby, but often the prospect of long-term care for more than one child. Professor Bennett is making discoveries into the reason why women go into labour too early.
Pre-term labour is a symptom, not a disease. It happens for many different reasons. For example, damage to the neck of the womb, an abnormality in the neck of the womb, abnormality of the shape of the uterus, excessive stretching of the womb particularly in multiple pregnancies, bleeding of the womb and perhaps maternal stress. Professor Bennett and his team have discovered a major inflammatory factor that is responsible for initiating premature birth. This factor controls the activity of a network of genes, and Phil hopes to target these genes in his search to prevent so many small babies being born, a highly promising approach which may is likely to delay premature labour and protect babies from handicap.
Professor Bennett and his team have recently found that a protein system which controls gene expressed called ‘Activator Protein One’ plays a very important role in the onset of both term and preterm labour. Work undertaken by Professor Edwards and Professor Henrik Hagberg has already shown that Activator Protein One also plays a role in perinatal brain injury. Now they are doing experiments to determine whether preterm birth and its associated brain injury can be stopped by inhibiting Activator Protein One.