Health & Lifestyle

Researchers hope to Find New Drugs to Tackle Australia’s rising Premature Birth Rate

Amy Perone calls her daughter Orly a miracle baby.

At just 24 weeks into her pregnancy, she was rushed to hospital and within four minutes, she had given birth.

“I was in some degree of shock and very afraid of what would happen then,” she said.

Born 15 weeks too early, Orly weighed just 654 grams.

A premature baby in hospital.

Ms Perone only briefly set eyes on her baby girl before she was whisked away to receive treatment.

“Our first experience of the [hospital] nursery and going in to see her in the humidicrib was seeing another parent over a cot crying … and there didn’t appear to be a baby in that cot,” she said.

“Realising that could be our reality too was terrifying.

“We’d been planning a child and it had taken us five years to get to the pregnancy with her so the notion that she wouldn’t survive was just too much to handle.

“We just had to stay focused on being absolutely in the moment. She’s alive and she’s with us right now.”

Early on, Ms Perone was told Orly’s survival would be a day-by-day battle, which she documented on a Facebook page called Orly’s Journey.

“When she delivered she, for want of a better description, looked like an eggplant,” Ms Perone said.

Orly went on to spend the first 107 days of her life in hospital and, nearly a year on, she still requires supplementary oxygen.

“It certainly hasn’t been an easy journey but we’ve tried to make the most of it. Orly is an inspiration to us all,” Ms Perone said.

Drug trials to tackle preterm births

Orly is one of 26,000 babies each year born prematurely in Australia, which is about 70 every day.

Preterm birth is on the rise and is among the world’s biggest killers of children under the age of five, accounting for three quarters of all child deaths within the first month of life.

One-year-old Orly looks at the camera.

University of Adelaide researchers have embarked on a major new research project aimed at preventing premature births.

Led by Professor Sarah Robertson at the Robinson Research Institute, the study is investigating new drugs which could hopefully supress triggers of preterm birth.

It will focus on inflammation, something Professor Robertson believes is the common thread underlying all causes of preterm births.

“Whether the cause is infection or whether it’s an environmental trigger or some kind of injury to the placenta, inflammation is important to all of those,” she said.

“So if we can block that inflammation that would give us a better strategy to delay or perhaps even one day prevent preterm births.”

A premature baby in hospital.

Pre-clinical trials have already taken place and the new $690,000 study will test drugs in human placental tissue and look at how they operate to block inflammation in human tissues.

“We’ve been able to show in our pre-clinical models that they’re very effective at blocking preterm birth and importantly the offspring in the trials that we’ve done are very healthy,” Professor Robertson said.

Earlier intervention the key to prevention

A lot of research has been done in this area but the University of Adelaide said this particular work was important because it targeted the very early stages of complications, instead of focusing on problems during labour.

While they are only beginning, researchers believe that in the future new drugs could be used alongside current approaches, including antibiotics.

“What we’re doing is looking at the underlying causes and intervening at a much earlier stage to prevent even the activation of that pathway to preterm birth,” Professor Robertson said.

“All of the current approaches tackle the activation of the birth process. We need to start much earlier in the cascade and really tackle the underlying events that are triggering the birth.”

At the end of the three years of research, it is hoped the evidence will be there to take the drug to pregnant women.

A mother holds her baby daughter.

Ms Perone strongly supports any efforts that could prevent others going through what her family has.

“Anything that can lessen that burden of anxiety and stress and concern is a worthy investment,” she said.

“The fact that it could potentially postpone or prevent [premature birth] is just invaluable.”