The drug, which has been used to treat types of cancer including breast, bowel and lung, has been found in the laboratory to control levels of a hormone receptor protein in the womb which is linked with giving birth.
The findings, from a research team at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, should bring hope to the women who see their premature babies die or suffer from physical or mental disability as a result of being born too early.
The research, funded by the charity Action Medical Research, is published today in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
In the UK each year, around 10 per cent, or 60,000, pregnancies end with premature births of less than 37 weeks gestation, which is the highest rate in Western Europe and costs the NHS millions of pounds. The problem is worse in the developing world.
Drugs currently used to treat women who give birth prematurely are relatively ineffective, and often have dangerous side effects, such as heart problems in mother and baby.
The research team examined the effect that the anti-cancer drug Trichostatin A better known as TSA had on the levels of receptors on human smooth muscle cells of the womb, or uterus, that are affected by the pregnancy hormone, hCG (Human chorionic gonadotrophin).
During pregnancy, the placenta releases large amounts of hCG. This activates the CG/LH receptors on the muscle cells of the womb to produce a muscle relaxant, which in turn prevents contractions and keeps the uterus in a relaxed state. It is known that decreases in hCG receptor levels may lead to contractions in the womb and labour.
Women whose babies are born prematurely experience an acute drop in the numbers of the CG/LH receptors and are thus less responsive to the hCG hormone
Contact: Dr Nick Europe-Finner
University of Newcastle upon Tyne