My daughter was born at 32 weeks, and my doctors were never able to figure out exactly why. So when I got pregnant the second time around, I was automatically considered high-risk and given progesterone shots in order to help reduce the chance of it happening again.
It happened anyway, when I lost my mucus plug—TMI alert!—at just 30 weeks. Thanks to strict bedrest, I was able to hold out another month until my son was finally ready to make his appearance at 34 weeks, arriving happy and healthy.
Still, it was a stressful and confusing time. And today, 11 years later, pre-term births are on the rise, remaining the major cause of death in children under 5. Culprits include things like bacterial infection (around 50 percent of cases), physical injury or stress causing placental damage, carrying twins or triplets, and exposure to environmental toxins like air pollution—all of which can activate the mother's immune response and lead to spontaneous pre-term birth.
Part of the problem, according to Professor Sarah Robertson, a researcher at the University of Adelaide, is that by the time these conditions have arisen, it's often too late for current treatments to work.
"What we really need is to stop the train at the station, as it were, before it can head down that track," she explained. "Once it's left the station it's usually too late to stop it."
Luckily, Professor Robertson and her team have recently made some strides in this area, successfully testing a drug called (+)-naloxone that's known for its abilities to switch off the "inflammatory cascade" that activates the mother's immune response and ultimately leads to a spontaneous pre-term birth.
In fact, when used in pregnant mice, Robertson reported the drug not only provided complete protection against pre-term birth triggered by bacteria, but also protected against stillbirth and infant fatalities shortly after birth, and led to a correction in the low birth weight normally associated with pre-term babies—pretty major!
"Our studies give us some encouragement that it may be possible to prevent many pre-term births by using drugs that target the body's inflammatory mechanisms, probably in combination with antibiotics as well," she explained, adding that more research will be needed to determine if (+)-naloxone or similar drugs could be used in human clinical trials.