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Preterm labor is a serious problem. In the United Kingdom alone, one in every 13 babies is born before they should be.

It is no surprise that the topic is of great interest to many researchers then, including a team from the University of Sheffield. They found out that the immune system plays a crucial role in preterm labor, possibly a breakthrough discovery that could help many babies in the future.  

The British research team concluded that "calming the immune system" could be the key to preventing preterm labor. It is inflammation actually a part of the immune system that apparently blocks drugs designed to prevent or stop preterm labor from doing their job. The study, which was just published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, says that an inflammation of the uterus "turns off genes" that prevent labor from starting.

When the Sheffield researchers started studying how inflammation affects certain drugs that are supposed to temporarily stop preterm labor from occurring, or that can stop a labor that had already started in its tracks, they were already onto something! The experimental drugs the study team looked into are called histone deacetylase inhibitors, and they are designed to turn certain genes on. These genes relax the uterus and stop uterine contractions.

But... the genes that were turned on by the drugs were turned off again by the inflammation that developed, again placing preterm labor on the woman's immediate agenda. Complex stuff that can't be easily dealt with, in other words! All these explanations about genes turning on and off are certainly hard for lay people to understand (and that would include me!), but one thing is clear: if anyone can develop a solution that would overcome the problems drugs that are supposed to stop preterm labor encounter within a woman's body, that could save a great many lives.

That solution may lie in stopping the inflammation of the uterus as well as the preterm labor itself, these researchers conclude. Dr Neil Chapman, one of the people who conducted the study, told the BBC more about the conclusions he and his colleagues reached. He was quoted as saying: "We really don't know what causes a woman to go into labor, essentially after her womb has had nine months gestation, how does it know 'Game over, time to start contracting'?

The process of human labor is such a big process that it is likely many cell functions must be controlled simultaneously: all the genes saying 'relax' being turned off and everything saying 'contract' being turned on." He continued: "If inflammation is part of that process then drugs will need to target that as well. Due to the complexity of the whole process, however, it's not going to be like a light switch that we can just turn on or off." In other words, the key isn't quite unlocked just yet, but scientists are on their way there.

This is good news for many families in who already have a history of preterm labor and know that they are more likely to deal with the same problem if they have another baby in the future. It is also good news for anyone else who will need it, as new drugs will start being developed to tackle the complex issues surrounding preterm labor.

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