Kazumasa Fuwa Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry

Investigating a new therapy to help prevent preterm birth

Controlling inflammation is the key to survival and avoiding life-long health complications for babies 

Globally, the leading cause of death in children under five is due to health issues arising from preterm birth, which affects more than one in 10 babies. Of the 15 million babies born too early each year – before 37 weeks of a completed pregnancy – approximately one million will die. Of those that survive, many will have life-long health complications such as cerebral palsy, asthma and developmental disabilities. 

Preterm birth can occur for a variety of reasons. Maternal infection, high stress, lifelong trauma, and genetics can all cause inflammation during pregnancy, triggering preterm birth and damaging the infant's growing organs. 

“The key to improving the prognosis of preterm babies is to control inflammation,” says Kazumasa Fuwa, a neonatologist from Nihon University in Japan and WCHRI postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology. Currently, there are no helpful medications to block this inflammation or early labour. 

Interleukin-6 is a cytokine – a molecule that helps control the immune system, including inflammation. During normal-term labour and delivery, cytokines are necessary to attract white blood cells into the uterus which, in turn, releases more cytokines. This inflammation helps to switch the uterus from a state of pregnancy into a state of labour. However, when these pro-inflammatory cytokines, especially interleukin-6, are produced in abundance too early, they cause preterm labour to start. 

Fuwa is currently testing a potential new therapy against preterm birth that suppresses maternal inflammation, preventing it from escalating to preterm birth. Under the supervision of David Olson, Fuwa is studying HSJ633, a therapeutic that blocks the activity of interleukin-6. Early studies show that HSJ633 blocks preterm birth caused by inflammation, however more data are required to determine the best dosage, treatment timing and effectiveness. 

“The medical costs of preterm birth that is placed on the parents, health system and society are enormous,” says Fuwa. “This novel treatment has the potential to protect millions of children from early death or devastating chronic health challenges.”

Kazumasa Fuwa is supervised by David Olson. His fellowship has been funded by the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.