Skip to main content
Move the World.

Premature birth is the most common cause of infant mortality, and the biggest cause of preterm labor is an infection in the mother. For a long time, doctors assumed this was all about the mother—infections triggered labor directly, making her body overreact and causing contractions. But a new study shows that, at least in some cases, it’s the baby’s own immune system that causes preterm labor, and it could even be a way to escape the infection. This discovery overturns the conventional wisdom and points to entirely new ways to prevent premature birth.

Mother vs. Baby: In general, your body doesn’t like things that aren’t you. The immune system’s main task is to find cells with foreign DNA, like viruses and bacteria, and attack them. But there are downsides to that rule—for instance, if you’re growing a completely new person inside of you. Pregnancy has several ways to suppress the mother’s immune response to prevent it from attacking the baby. But the conventional wisdom has always said that the fetal immune system is simply too immature to do much during pregnancy.

“Waking Up” Early: Researchers at UC San Francisco have discovered that babies’ immune systems are actually just dormant, waiting for the right signal to turn them on after birth. It turns out, unfortunately, that infections in the mother can fool it into waking up early. And once the system is on, it starts attacking the mother’s cells, causing inflammation in the uterus and triggering contractions.

Hitting the Eject Button: This could simply be a mistake: babies’ immune systems have to be primed and ready to go, and sometimes this leads to a dangerous and untimely exit. But one of the study’s authors thinks premature birth could be an evolved eject button. “It could be a defense mechanism to exit a hostile uterine environment,” he said, “if you encounter trouble in the form of an infection or inflammation.” Normally, the womb is the place to be for developing babies, but sometimes it might have been worth the gamble to enter the world early.

The Upshot: Right now, the treatments for premature labor are aimed at the mother, treating her infection and trying to stop contractions. But this might be too little and too late when the real issue is the baby rejecting the mother—not the other way around. The infection could have come and gone already, possibly without the mother even noticing, but if it leaves the baby’s immune system activated, that’s the issue that has to be diagnosed early and treated. Recognizing this could open up a new range of possibilities for detecting and reducing the risk of premature birth.

Up Next

Public Health
Gates Foundation Funds At-Home Coronavirus Testing Project
coronavirus testing
Public Health
Gates Foundation Funds At-Home Coronavirus Testing Project
The Gates Foundation is funding an at-home coronavirus testing project in Seattle, with the goal of testing thousands of people for COVID-19 daily.

The Gates Foundation is funding an at-home coronavirus testing project in Seattle, with the goal of testing thousands of people for COVID-19 daily.

Health
New Lasers See Into The Brain to Detect Concussions
concussion test
Health
New Lasers See Into The Brain to Detect Concussions
Researchers are attempting to improve the age-old concussion test with a device that can measure CCO levels in the brain using infrared lasers.

Researchers are attempting to improve the age-old concussion test with a device that can measure CCO levels in the brain using infrared lasers.

Future of Medicine
THC Could Help Women With Endometriosis
thc for endometriosis
Future of Medicine
THC Could Help Women With Endometriosis
Hundreds of thousands of women suffer with endometriosis, a disorder that causes painful tissue growth outside of the uterus. Pending clinical trials around THC may finally spell relief.
By Sarah Wells

Hundreds of thousands of women suffer with endometriosis, a disorder that causes painful tissue growth outside of the uterus. Pending clinical trials around THC may finally spell relief.

Future of Food
GMO Salmon Could Forever Change the Way We Produce Food
It’s Time to Embrace the Frankenfish
Watch Now
Future of Food
GMO Salmon Could Forever Change the Way We Produce Food
Would you eat fish that was genetically designed in a lab? What if it was your only option? Like it or not, GMO salmon and other futuristic foods are revolutionizing the global food system right in front of our eyes.
Watch Now

Bioengineered fish have been known to cause mixed feelings. Unnatural, right? Well, after 30 years of debate on whether we should be eating “Frankenfish,” this funky food source is finally coming to a store near you. Like it or not, GMO salmon and possibly other genetically engineered animal meats will soon be on the shelves of your local supermarket. And, these new futuristic foods may be revolutionizing the global food...

A New Reality
How to Spot a Deepfake
How to Spot a Deepfake
Watch Now
A New Reality
How to Spot a Deepfake
Is artificial intelligence the key to knowing what’s real?
Watch Now

Deepfake videos use video manipulation to show people saying and doing things they never have. These engineers are using blockchain technology to separate fact from fiction. Deepfakes, fake videos generated using artificial intelligence technology, could be the next frontier in misinformation. While news video has historically been the gold standard of veracity, an era where video can be easily created could further erode...

Dispatches
Are "CRISPR Kids" the New "Test-Tube Babies"?
Are
Dispatches
Are "CRISPR Kids" the New "Test-Tube Babies"?
Forty years later, IVF shows how fears about new technology can fade.
By Patricia Stapleton

Forty years later, IVF shows how fears about new technology can fade.

Science
Why Don't We Believe Extreme Weather Forecasts?
Why Don't We Believe Extreme Weather Forecasts?
Science
Why Don't We Believe Extreme Weather Forecasts?
Research shows people don't take extreme weather predictions seriously. And don't take the necessary precautions as...
By Mike Riggs

Research shows people don't take extreme weather predictions seriously. And don't take the necessary precautions as a result.

Superhuman
A Life Changed by Robotic Legs
A Life Changed by Robotic Legs
Watch Now
Superhuman
A Life Changed by Robotic Legs
Robert is paralyzed. But thanks to a robotic exoskeleton, he can walk again.
Watch Now

After an accident, Robert Woo was paralyzed from the chest down. Woo spent the next four years in a wheelchair and in therapy. But even as he learned how to live his new life, he couldn’t stop asking one very simple question: How could humans build skyscrapers, but not something better than a wheelchair? Then Woo heard about bionic exoskeletons. And it changed his life.