Researchers at the University of Adelaide have conducted a successful drug test that shows early promises of preventing pre-term birth.

This success will help to understand the inflammatory mechanisms that lead to pre-term birth and ways to prevent it.

The university’s Robinson Research Institute researchers tested a drug known to switch off pro-inflammatory pathways on pregnant mice.

The tested drug is known as (+)-naloxone.

"The babies born to mothers treated with (+)-naloxone developed normally and were mostly indistinguishable from those born to the control group."

Researchers found that pre-term birth was entirely prevented and in reducing infant mortalities significantly. The reports also stated that low birth weight, normally associated with early birth, was also reversed.

Pre-term birth refers to infants born before 37 weeks' gestation. It is the major cause of death in children under five years of age that totals to more than 1.1 million deaths per year.

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Robinson Research Institute director professor Sarah Robertson said: “New interventions are urgently needed to tackle the underlying causes of pre-term birth, prevent infant deaths and reduce the impact of a wide range of developmental impairments, which can have lifelong health consequences.”

The main causes of pre-birth that accounts for almost 12% of all births worldwide are bacterial infection, physical injury or stress causing placental damage, or from air pollution.

Each of these is associated with what researchers term as an 'inflammatory cascade', which can activate the mother’s immune response and ultimately lead to spontaneous pre-term birth.

This inflammatory cascade is triggered by an immune receptor known as Toll-Like receptor 4 (TLR4) responding to any cause. TLR4 produces a number of pro-inflammatory effects that are harmful to pregnancy.

Professor Robertson said: “TLR4 is a trigger of spontaneous pre-term birth. For this reason, we wanted to test a drug known for its ability to block the actions of TLR4, to see if that would also prevent pre-term birth.”

Professor Robertson stated: "We found that by treating pregnant mice with (+)-naloxone, it provided complete protection against pre-term birth triggered by bacteria. It also protected against stillbirth and infant death shortly after birth, and led to a correction in birth weight among infants that would otherwise be born at very low birth weight."

"The babies born to mothers treated with (+)-naloxone developed normally and were mostly indistinguishable from those born to the control group."

More research needs to be conducted to determine if (+)-naloxone can be used in human clinical trials.

This research has been supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in Australia, the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the National Institutes of Health in the US.