SUCCESS: Trent Butler, Kaushik Maiti, Roger Smith, Eng-Cheng Chan and Jonathan Paul have discovered what triggers labour. Picture: Brock PerksIT’S a discovery that could help stop premature births and reduce the need for overweight women to have caesarean sections.
The University of Newcastle’s Mothers and Babies Research Centre has found out what happens in the uterine muscle to trigger the onset of labour.
The finding is of international significance as it has the potential to save thousands of lives, particularly in developing countries.
Hunter Medical Research Institute Professor Roger Smith explained how his team had identified an ‘‘electrical switch’’ that turns off signals in the uterus.
When the switch – or potassium channel – is turned off, or disturbed, it triggers powerful contractions.
The findings were published in the prestigious international journal Nature Communications yesterday.
‘‘Essentially what we’ve found is a kind of switch [in the uterus] that actually turns off to allow the onset of labour and for contractions to occur effectively,’’ Professor Smith said.
‘‘It was never really known before this how women go into labour. Nobody knew this was a key part of labour and why these muscle cells start contracting so powerfully.’’
Collaborating with researchers in Melbourne, this major discovery has led to an understanding of why overweight or obese women tend to have long and difficult labours.
‘‘In obesity what happens is that channel doesn’t disappear properly, it remains present so the overweight ladies don’t contract their uteruses as powerfully as they ought to,’’ Professor Smith explained.
‘‘That leads to a slower labour or maybe the labour not progressing at all.
‘‘The muscle cells aren’t doing the massive contractions.
‘‘Now we understand this mechanism we can develop drugs to target it.’’
The potential benefits would be huge to the Hunter, the fifth fattest region in Australia, where 70per cent of adults are overweight.
There are many other significant medical breakthroughs that could follow.
One involves premature births – the most common cause of newborn babies dying.
‘‘We could look at a drug which would allow us to keep the potassium channel open; then the woman wouldn’t go into labour,’’ Professor Smith said.
‘‘[Premature births] are very expensive; we have the neonatal intensive care unit set up.
‘‘Although we do have very good care here, many premature babies have intellectual disabilities such as cerebral palsy.
‘‘It’s a big problem in our community.’’
Another major possibility is being able to stop postpartum haemorrhages – severe blood loss after childbirth – occurring.
This would save thousands of lives in developing countries.
‘‘Each year in Indonesia about 20,000 women die in relationship to pregnancy and many of those cases are related to postpartum haemorrhage,’’ Professor Smith said. ‘‘It occurs when the placenta separates from the lining of the uterus.
‘‘There are blood vessels there that go across to the placenta, so it’s like a great big open scar with blood vessels coming through it.
‘‘Normally what happens is the uterus contracts down tightly and closes off those blood vessels but if it doesn’t contract well enough then the mother can bleed to death from the arteries that are exposed there.
‘‘So a drug that more powerfully causes contraction of the uterus after childbirth could save many people’s lives.’’
Professor Smith noted the development of drugs would take some time, but was possible now that scientists understood the mechanism. He said he and his team were already beginning to look into certain treatments, although he could not discuss them at this stage.
‘‘We’ve got a development program under way,’’ he said.
‘‘We have taken out patents towards these issues.’’
Professor Smith also wanted to get the message out there that the best way for a baby to have a long and healthy life was to be born at the right weight and right time.
‘‘So the best way mums can ensure this is to stop smoking and maintain a healthy body weight before pregnancy occurs,’’ he said.