Little is known about the molecular triggers of labor in full-term pregnancies, and even less is known about the underlying causes of preterm birth. Yet, every day 15,000 US babies are born too early, according to the March of Dimes.
Sarah England, PhD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University School of Medicine, studies the triggers of labor to better understand how to prevent preterm birth. “We’re interested in what causes the rhythmic nature of uterine contractions,” says England. “This will give us insight into how to relax the uterus during preterm labor so a woman can go to fullterm.”
Specifically, England wants to know how potassium ions are allowed to pass through the smooth muscle cell membrane in the uterus.
She and her colleagues suspect that labor is activated when these ions are prevented from passing through the membrane. The exit of potassium causes the uterus to relax.
“If we could find out what happens during a normal labor, we’d have a better sense of how to regulate uterine contractions,” England says. “This could help us design better drugs to prevent preterm birth, which has become a significant health care problem.”