Women’s Birth Contraction Switch Discovered



Women are known to experience varying degrees of pain and difficulty during childbirth with overweight pregnant women considered to be at higher risk of stillbirth, foetal death and other pregnancy-related problems, as a study led by Imperial College London recently confirmed.

Having taken muscle biopsies from the uterus of 70 women, a group of Australian researchers recently discovered, for the first time, an ion channel that transmits electrical signals in women and controls contractions of the uterus at childbirth. This answers questions on the process of labour and birth and why some women suffer complications resulting from improper contractions.

The researchers, led by Helena Parkington, an associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at Monash University, Melbourne, discovered the switch called hERG, an ion channel, which is also a potassium channel that restrains contractions before labour.

pregThe hERG performs certain tasks that lead to increased duration of uterine action potentials and contractions. According to the researchers, the ion channel needs to be switched off for easy child delivery.

Fortunately, women have hERG resistant called the ‘Molecular Hand’, an inhibitory protein that is notably enhanced during labour. The molecular hand switches off the hERG to initiate birth contractions.

However, hERG tends to remain turned on in overweight women as Parkington explains: “The reason it stays on is that the ‘molecular hand’ that should turn the switch off fails to appear in sufficient quantities in the uterine muscle of overweight women when labour should be occurring.”

Even as it is believed that the discovery would help obstetricians, gynaecologists and other women health administrators to find safe and effective treatments to correct contraction problems, it is important for pregnant women to be conscious of their body mass index (i.e. a weight-to-height ratio, calculated by dividing one’s weight in kilograms by the square of one’s height in metres and used as an indicator of obesity and underweight). They can do this by being mindful of their weight and eating only nutritious and suitable food during pregnancy.

As the researchers believe, the discovery would also help to develop a drug that functions as the molecular hand to assist pregnant women during labour.


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