A NEW drug is showing early promise to help prevent preterm births and reduce major health complications in infants, University of Adelaide researchers have found.
The drug, which has so far been trialled in mice, has major implications worldwide for women and their babies in preventing infant deaths, reducing the chances of stillbirth and a range of lifelong health issues caused by premature birth.
Preterm birth includes babies born at less than 37 weeks gestation and is the major cause of death in children under five years, accounting for 1.1 million deaths annually.
Preterm births represent 12 per cent of all births worldwide.
The drug, called (+)-naloxone, works by suppressing inflammation in the uterus and placenta which triggers an early birth.
The drug is already known for its ability to block the actions of an immune receptor called TLR4 which produces effects harmful to pregnancy.
Lead author Professor Sarah Robertson, who heads the university’s Robinson Research Institute, said the body’s immune system “is at the root of driving the timing of birth”.
Using the drug in mice, she said the researchers found preterm birth was entirely prevented and infant fatalities were reduced.
“We found all of the mice delivered on time and all of the babies were alive, healthy and the right size and had grown perfectly normally,” she said.
“We were really surprised that the stillbirth and foetal growth were all protected and fixed.”
Prof Robertson said the drug could be given to women during the third trimester.
There is no drug like it on the market and while there are current drugs used to prevent preterm birth, they are used at much later stages of the birth process.
“They are only suppressing the very last steps in labour and at that time for most babies, it’s too late to stop things,” Prof Robertson said.
“The ideal situation would be to delay birth by several weeks to get it much closer to the normal birth date.”
Prof Robertson said (+)-naloxone could eventually be used in conjunction with antibiotics for women at higher risk of preterm birth, including women with IVF pregnancies, multiple pregnancy and pre-eclampsia.
She said the next step was to start the testing process in humans.
“We’re now working to get better potency and better versions of the drug,” she said.
“Our partners in Washington are currently testing this in people with serious septicaemia and it just proves that the drug is safe and works on people and there are no side effects.
“If it works in people who would die otherwise that gives us the confidence to organise the next steps.”
The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.