Each year nearly one in eight babies are born preterm (before 37 weeks) in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which puts them at a higher risk for a number of health issues later in life.
But now, scientists at Queen Mary University and University College London have identified the chemical chain of events that they believe causes the preterm premature rupture of the fetal membrane (PPROM)—the condition that accounts for 40 percent of all preterm births.
Published in Placenta, scientists found through testing that stretching the amniotic membrane leads to the overproduction of the hormone-like compound prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), which in turn activates the protein connexin 43 (Cx43) decreasing the mechanical properties of the membrane, all of which can potentially lead to rupture and preterm birth.
This is the first study of its kind and the next step, researchers say, is to find a treatment that would actually repair the amniotic membrane.
"To have potentially found a way to reduce pre-term births and prevent early deaths of young babies worldwide is incredibly exciting," study co-author Dr. Tina Chowdhury said in a news release. "This gives us an understanding of both the mechanical as well as biological mechanisms involved and will help us to develop therapies that will reduce the number of preterm births."
Should your early contractions raise a red flag? Go here to learn more about premature labor.
Baby Care Basics: Concerns for Premature Babies
Photo of preemie baby courtesy of Shutterstock.