New UCL research drive to tackle UK’s premature birth rate

UCL experts have teamed up with pregnancy charity Tommy’s and four other leading institutions to launch the UK’s first centre for preterm birth research.

The Tommy’s National Centre for Preterm Birth Research, which also involves Imperial College London, King’s College London, Queen Mary University of London and the University of Leeds, aims to reduce the number of babies born prematurely in the UK, amid concerns that progress has stalled and inequalities are growing.

The teams will work together on a wide range of research projects to investigate the causes and prevention of premature birth and the factors that increase risks for minoritised ethnic communities, as well as looking at the best ways to support parents of premature babies.

Premature birth is the most common cause of death in children under five in the UK, and every year an estimated 53,000 babies are born before 37 weeks of pregnancy.

It can have life-changing consequences, leaving children at higher risk of long-term complications, including learning disabilities, hearing problems and visual impairment. Many parents whose babies are born prematurely also report ongoing feelings of anxiety, depression and guilt.

People from Black and Asian backgrounds and those living in the most deprived areas of the UK are more likely to experience premature birth than those from white backgrounds and those living in the least deprived areas.

The centre is a collaboration led by Professor Catherine Williamson of Imperial College London.

Director of the UCL EGA Institute for Women’s Health, Professor Anna David, is Deputy Director of the new Centre and is leading the project at UCL. Professor David said: "The UCL team are thrilled to be supported by Tommy’s charity to research new ways to prevent, treat and improve outcomes of premature birth for both mum and baby. We aim to make a big impact through research into novel predictive tests and therapeutics, and to better support parents who are experiencing preterm birth."

Professor David leads the Preterm Birth Clinic team at U niversity C ollege L ondon H ospital NHS Foundation Trust which is a specialist antenatal service designed specifically for the needs of pregnant women at risk of premature labour. The clinic sees nearly 400 patients per year and is one of the busiest in the UK.

Researchers at the Tommy’s UCL Centre are being supported by the NIHR UCLH Biomedical Research Centre. More than 20 research projects are currently planned as part of the Centre’s work. The UCL Tommy’s group will focus upon several research projects including:

    The involvement of parents in decision-making about the care of extremely premature babies and the best approach to communication so that parents are supported as part of their babies’ care

    Understanding the cause of placental inflammatory syndromes and preventing their recurrence in future pregnancies.

The Tommy’s National Centre for Preterm Birth Research will fund research over a five-year period, enabling the appointment of research fellows and supporting clinical academics and scientists working within the UCL EGA Institute for Women’s Health in fetal and maternal physiology, infection and neonatal care.

Dr Subhabrata Mitra, Associate Professor in Neonatology at UCL EGA Institute for Women’s Health, whose work will be funded by the Centre said: "We aim to deliver the step change needed to reduce the preterm birth rates and make sure every part of the pregnancy and birth journey is becoming safer."

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