Scientists from the University of Adelaide, Australia, believe that an experimental drug may ultimately prevent the most common cause of premature birth.

The drug, naloxone, has shown considerable success in early animal trials, according to the team’s findings which were published in Scientific Reports.

A series of experiments were conducted by researchers on pregnant mice with a non-opioid form of naloxone.

This non-opioid form, (+)-naloxone, was found to drastically reduce the rate of mice delivering their young prematurely or stillborn when they were exposed to a substance found in bacteria that causes inflammation.

The drug also prevented newborn mice from having low birth weight when their mothers were exposed to E. coli bacteria late in their pregnancy.

“We found that by treating pregnant mice with (+)-naloxone, it provided complete protection against pre-term birth triggered by bacteria,” Sarah Robertson, senior author and professor at the university’s Robinson Research Institute, said in a statement.

“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.”

Inflammation is a key component of what stimulates a normal delivery process, however, bacterial infections, stress, or other damage to the placenta during pregnancy can also ignite an inflammatory response which leads to premature births, the authors said.

Although naloxone is already used to reduce inflammation, the version created by Robertson’s team specifically inhibits a receptor that signals this sort of inflammation called Toll-Like receptor 4 (TLR4).

“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.

“Our studies give us some encouragement that it may be possible to prevent many pre-term births, by using drugs that target the body’s inflammatory mechanisms, probably in combination with antibiotics as well,” Robertson added.

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