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Surprise discovery could accelerate treatments for premature babies


Fresh insight into the biology of premature birth could guide medics to monitor and treat ‘at risk’ premature babies earlier, giving them better their life chances.

Brunel’s Telomere Biology Laboratory, The University of Kent and William Harvey Hospital’s neo natal unit searched for a genetic marker to identify “at risk” children sooner.

They compared the length of premature babies’ telomeres – caps at the end of chromosomes that degrade as people age – with those from babies born when expected.

Unexpectedly, they found babies born at the normal time had the shortest telomeres despite some evidence that premature babies’ telomeres shorten over time.

“The results were surprising in the sense that we expected shorter telomeres,” said Predrag Slijepcevic at Brunel Telomere Biology lab. “We’d expect this because preterm infants show some signs of the “aged” clinical presentation.

“However, telomere length resetting frequently occurs during embryonic development and the observed longer telomeres may simply reflect this variable embryonic physiology,” Predrag added.

The findings suggest other, undiscovered factors may influence telomere length in premature babies. They also raise the possibility that how premature the baby is could affect how quickly their telomeres shorten.

Crucially, spotting genetic differences like this between premature and term-born babies could pinpoint those most risk. That means they could be treated sooner to help prevent problems in later life.

Every year,  60,000 UK babies are born premature, according to premature baby charity, Bliss. Most premature births are spontaneous, with no clear cause and many of these babies need urgent neonatal care after birth. Premature birth is linked to respiratory, learning and developmental disorders and more recently, hypertension, insulin resistance and altered body fat distribution. These latter problems may suggest early ageing in premature babies.

One of the leading telomere biology labs in UK, Brunel developed techniques for measuring telomere length including Q-FISH (quantitative fluorescence in situ hybridization).

The next step, says Predag, “is to find out what’s behind the observed telomere elongation.”

Find out more about Biomedical Sciences at Brunel

Reported by:

Hayley Jarvis, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268176