Preventing premature births worldwide

(Edmonton) Two medical researchers with the University of Alberta are part of an international team that has received $1 million in funding to develop a drug that could prevent preterm births—a bigger problem in Alberta than in any other province in Canada.

The research team is working on developing an inexpensive drug that could prevent preterm labour contractions from happening. The group wants to stop the processes in the body that ultimately trigger early contractions. They are hopeful the new compound will be ready for Phase 1 clinical trials at the end of their three-year research term. In addition, they hope to develop an early detection blood test that can pinpoint which women may be at risk for preterm birth.

“Right now we don’t have good drugs on the market to prevent a woman from going into preterm labour,” says David Olson, a Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry researcher in the departments of obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, and physiology, and director of the international team.

“Except for one drug, all others currently on the market were originally developed for cardiovascular disease and not to prevent preterm birth. These drugs work on trying to stop the uterus from contracting,” Olson says. “What we want to do is to block those processes that turn on or activate the uterine contractions, so the pregnancy can continue.”

Bryan F. Mitchell, a U of A researcher in the departments of obstetrics and gynecology and physiology, is also part of the research team, along with researchers from the University of Montreal, the University of Lethbridge, the University of Adelaide and the Second Military Medical University in Shanghai.

The group received funding from the Preventing Preterm Birth Initiative, a Grand Challenge in Global Health administered by the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth, an initiative of Seattle Children’s. The program seeks to discover biological mechanisms that lead to preterm birth and develop novel interventions to prevent them. In total, there were 320 applications from 50 countries and five were selected to receive funding.

Team members from Montreal are developing an inexpensive medication to prevent preterm birth. Other members in Australia, Shanghai and Alberta will test the effectiveness of the drug on animal lab models. Preliminary testing of the drugs in some animal lab models has already shown the medication is effective.

The medication currently being developed would be very inexpensive to produce—just $1 or $2 per day per patient. Considering preterm birth is a worldwide problem, and occurs at high rates in developing countries, the drug would be affordable everywhere.

“We are excited about the potential of Dr. Olson’s research to translate directly to helping prevent preterm birth around the world,” said Craig Rubens, executive director of GAPPS. “His interdisciplinary team of experts and collaborative research approach will make important advances toward solving this global health crisis.”

Worldwide, there are 135 million births a year, of which slightly more than 10 per cent are preterm. Of those 15 million preterm births a year, about one million babies will die.

Alberta has the highest rate of premature birth in Canada, at 8.7 per cent—higher than the national average of 7.7 per cent, notes Olson. The costs associated with preterm births in Canada are tens of billions a year. The preterm birth rate in the United States is much higher, at 12 per cent.

“Our goal is modest, I think,” says Olson. “If we could change the preterm birth rate by just one per cent in North America, there would be healthier babies and happier families, and billions of dollars would be saved each year. The benefits would be huge.”