Before we are born, each and every one of us is enveloped by membranes and fluid that ensure our safe development and protect us from the external environment at a time when we are at our most vulnerable. Foetal membranes are split into two layers and the protective sac, the amniotic membrane that surrounds the developing baby, is currently the focus
of studies being carried out by researchers from the University of Reading’s School of Pharmacy and the Institute for Women’s Health at University College London.
Dr Che Connon, a Research Councils UK Fellow in Stem Cells and Nanomaterials, and his team have developed a synchrotron technique to study one of the most common causes of premature birth and perinatal death.
In the majority of pregnancies and around the time the baby is due, the protective sac ruptures, often during labour and mothers know their baby is on the way, which is termed as the “waters breaking”. However, in up to one in five of all pregnancies, rupture of the amniotic membrane occurs early in pregnancy, well before the due date and sadly this can result in death, or severe learning difficulties in the infants because they usually deliver prematurely.
Understanding what causes the amniotic membrane to rupture early before the baby is due will help scientists to develop new ways to predict who may be at risk and to develop new pharmacological methods to prevent it happening. Using Diamond’s Non-Crystalline Diffraction beamline, Dr Connon and his team are now studying the amniotic membrane tissue from women who have experienced premature rupture.
“The membrane is mainly made up of collagen and we are using Diamond’s powerful X-rays to examine the collagen arrangement in the amniotic membrane. We are able to do this in extremely fine detail and discover how the fibres of collagen are orientated, the diameter of the molecules, and the spacing between these molecules, down to a resolution of 50 – 100 nanometres. Our early findings suggest that changes in the orientation of the collagen molecules lead to a weakening of the membrane and eventually to a programmed rupture. Rupture of the amniotic sac has been associated with weakening of the tissue, but there is very little information available concerning the detailed mechanisms of how this actually occurs. This is where our synchrotron work is so important, as it is helping us to build up the results that we need to move this area of research forward.”
Dr Che Connon, University of Reading
Worldwide currently premature birth is increasing, although scientists and clinicians do not yet understand why, and 40% are attributed to early rupture of amniotic membranes. Therefore a better understanding of the rupture process will lead to better methods to predict who is at risk and allow the development of new treatments that may lower the number of premature deliveries.
X-ray Diffraction of Amniotic Membrane, Reproductive Sciences, April 2009.
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