Mystery protein

Identifying the signal that starts labour may be key to diagnosing preterm risk

David Olson

A protein secreted by the fetus weeks before birth may be critical to predicting and preventing preterm labour. Dr. David Olson and his lab team are working to identify the protein that they think—on the basis of their earlier research—signals the earliest stages of labour.

If their hypothesis is correct, this will bring researchers a big step closer to understanding the factors involved in preterm delivery and to detecting and treating women who are at risk. Preterm birth is the leading cause of death in newborns. It can also contribute to behavioural and cognitive difficulties, and lifelong health problems. In Canada, lifetime costs have been estimated at $676,800 for each preterm infant, or $20 billion annually. At 8.8 per cent, Alberta has the country’s highest rate of preterm births. Despite its prevalence, doctors still don’t know what causes most preterm labour, how to diagnose risk or how to prolong pregnancy to improve maternal and child outcomes.

Olson explains the significance of the protein that may provide crucial answers to the onset of labour. The ‘mystery’ protein acts as a homing signal, drawing white blood cells (leukocytes) into the uterus. As labour becomes more imminent, the leukocytes become more and more active, setting into motion a chain reaction that initiates the birth process.

“The protein primes the pump,” says Olson. “It gets things started.”

If his team can isolate the protein, then they will be able to identify the beginning of labour four or five weeks before delivery, long before any overt symptoms appear. This would pave the way for preterm diagnosis and treatment. The project has yielded some promising early data, thanks to a 2014-2015 innovation grant from the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute. Additional WCHRI funding made it possible for researcher Dr. Nanlin Yin, an MD graduate from Chongqing Medical University in China, to join the team. Yin has been instrumental in advancing the work to this point.

Finding support for new ideas can be difficult even for senior researchers such as Olson, who is a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Alberta and who has headed several research bodies. Major funders tend to invest in projects that have had considerable work already done on them and are going to be successful, says Olson. “So the problem becomes how do we obtain enough data or information about an idea to get major funding?”

Olson is now looking to leverage the seed funding he received from WCHRI into a large-scale national grant that will enable his team to continue their work.

 His goal is to develop a diagnostic kit that can quickly and easily identify women at risk of preterm labour—and do it inexpensively for a few dollars. “Once we identify the protein, we’re going to be moving ahead very quickly with this,” he says.

Olson’s research has been funded by generous supporters of the Lois Hole Hospital for Women through WCHRI.

 Lois Hole Hospital for Women