Premature birth is the second leading cause of death in children under five and is associated with lifelong health issues. Some 60,000 babies are born premature before the 37th week of pregnancy each year in the UK.
‘PIBF1 is itself part of the immune system but it reacts to stress by acting as a check and prevents a woman going into labour.’
The protein found in the lining of the mother's womb, which could reset the body's immune response.
When a copycat version of the human protein, which is produced by immune cells, was created in the laboratory and injected into mice, it was 100 percent successful in preventing premature births.
Lead author of the research Professor Kang Chen, from Wayne State University in Michigan said, "We didn't know much about what these cells did in pregnancy we didn't even know they existed in the lining of the womb. Now we know they promote healthy pregnancy, which fills an important hole in our knowledge."
When a pregnant woman develops an infection, her body can start to push out the baby in an attempt to rid her of the bug. However this is dangerous for tiny babies, which have not yet fully grown in the womb.
Researchers found the protein, PIBF1, after taking biopsies of 15 women who gave birth prematurely and 30 who carried their children to full-term.
PIBF1 is itself part of the immune system however it reacts to stress by acting as a check, potentially preventing a woman going into labour. The mothers who gave birth prematurely had significantly less of this protein. But when it was injected into nine mice with infections, it stopped all of them going into labour early.
Professor Andrew Shennan, clinical director of Tommy's prematurity clinic at St Thomas' Hospital in London, said, "Preventing pre-term birth remains an enigma and any research that clarifies the mechanism to provide treatment targets is welcomed. This research is important and novel."