Premature Babies-What's the cause of an early birthday?

Funding PhD research into premature birth - help us understand why some babies are born too soon.

  • £510

    pledged of £88,957

    • 16


    • 0


Completion Date: Thu 08 Jun 2017


Picture the scene, you're 21 weeks pregnant, you've just left the ultrasound clinic clutching that grainy black and white image, retracing the perfect fingers and toes, smiling at the little blob of a heart you just heard beating and laughing at your baby's hiccups. You head home, desperate to show all of your family, friends, neighbours, colleagues - everyone! - your little bundle of joy's first picture. You start painting the nursery, buy those first outfits, maybe even choose names now you know everything is ok.

Fast forward five weeks, you're at work, you feel tired and achy, before you know it you are in the delivery suite, in premature labour. Baby is coming and there's no stopping her. Gone are the thoughts of those tiny fingers - now it's panic, fear, questions...will my baby survive? Is there a neonatal bed free? Are her lungs developed enough? How tiny will she be? Will I be able to hold her? Will she cry?

Unfortunately, this is the situation facing 60,000 mother in the UK every single year .


Across the world 15 million babies are born prematurely each year, sadly one million of these will not survive due to their early birthday and the complications they suffer from this. Putting this number in to context, at the Jessop Maternity Wing in Sheffield around 7,000 babies are born each year; the one million neonatal deaths caused by an early birth are therefore equivalent to there being no live births in this one hospital for the next 143 years.

Whilst research and improved healthcare have seen increased survival rates of very premature births in the last 10 years we know that these babies have a higher risk of major long-term health conditions such as deafness and problems with their airways and guts. They are also more likely to have mobility problems, reduced memory and thinking skills and cerebral palsy.

As a result of the short and long-term implications, the combined cost to the public sector and society of premature birth and treating the problems arising from an early birthday amount to an eye-watering £4 billion per year.

Being born too soon is very much a problem for all and a problem for life, the case for prevention is, therefore, an incredibly strong one.


I have been offered the opportunity to carry out research into the reasons why babies are born too soon, a cause which whilst very personal to me, I also believe in because I want to help all of the 15 million babies born too soon. This research would form the basis of a three year PhD project in the Reproductive and Developmental Medicine Department of the Medical School at the University of Sheffield and would be supervised by Dr Neil Chapman , an acclaimed authority on the biochemistry of why the womb contracts too early ( ). Further details about the project can be found in the science-y bit below.


I am mum to three teenagers and wife to a police officer. I am currently studying at the University of Sheffield on the MSc in Reproductive and Developmental Medicine, a course which has been funded by a generous scholarship from the university and its alumni.

With all three children under the age of seven, I embarked on a full time undergraduate degree in human biology which was awarded with first class honours in 2007. I trained and taught as a secondary science teacher but the hankering to do some scientific research and try to understand why premature birth happens, and ultimately to prevent it, never left me.

Of my three children two were born very prematurely, Sophie at 29 weeks weighing 3lb 6oz and Emily at 27 weighing in at a tiny 2lb 2oz. Both spent their first months of life in neonatal intensive care units constantly fighting to overcome problems directly caused by their untimely arrivals.

On top of the emotional strain of not being able to hold your baby, let alone take them home, we faced financial and practical difficulties travelling to and from hospitals at least twice a day, taking time off work and extended leave to care for our other young children and finding nappies to fit such tiny babies!

The support we received from family, friends, colleagues and medical staff is indescribable, sadly, many of these people have gone on to have premature babies of their own because globally there is a lack of funding for premature birth research. For this, I want to "give something back", I am passionate about trying to find the reasons why some babies just can't wait to be born and to prevent other parents, other families, also suffering through the long, hard, stressful times which are sad consequences of premature births.


I unfortunately do not have the money to fund this essential work and, despite my best efforts, have been unable to secure any further scholarships or grants for support. In today's economic climate funding opportunities for research are extremely limited and highly competitive - in fact only 15% of PhDs receive a scholarship award. Despite the huge scale of the problem, there is very little funding available for research into pre-term birth - how often do you see a charity bag for premature birth drop through your letter box?

I have had two kind offers of small donations towards laboratory consumable and would be able to supplement these by taking on supervision of an MSc student project per year. The project would run for three years (36 months) with a detailed book of all experimental results (thesis) submitted within this timeframe. The break-down of the costs is as follows (click the figures to see where they come from):

  • 3 years' tuition fees - £30,000 (approximately £10,000/year 2016/2017 increasing annually with inflation)
  • 3 years' living expenses - £44,449 (based on the Research Council UK minimum stipend rate increasing annually with inflation)
  • 3 years' laboratory consumables - £11,500 (ordinarily would be approximately £22,000 in total, amount shown is deducting current donations and MSc project supervision)
  • PayPal fees (3.5% applied to successful projects) - £3,008

For the project to go ahead I need to demonstrate to the University Research Office that I have the funds to support myself and pay tuition fees and laboratory consumables for the full three years . Without this confirmation of the full project support by 1st July 2017 I will be unalble to start the research, therefore my minimum needed is £88,957 , which is the combination of tuition fees, consumables and living costs plus 3.5% to cover PayPal fees.

I am under no illusions as to just how staggering the amount of money I am asking for is, but consider that on average it costs society and the public sector a whopping £75,500 per baby, per year if this project prevents just one baby being born prematurely the research costs will offset those societal and public expenses.


Little is known about the fundamental biology which sees the womb change from a relaxed state which cannot contract regularly to an organ which undergoes the regular contractions seen in labour. Our current knowledge about the human birth process suggests that normal labour is a highly-regulated inflammatory process similar to that seen when the body is injured or ill. The inflammation seen in the womb at term modifies how the blueprint of the womb muscle cells (the DNA, or genome) works to regulate when the womb contracts with inflammation seemingly able to promote labour. Consequently the project will seek to find out how the womb reads its genome when such inflammatory chemicals are present and also which parts of the genome the womb cells use before labour starts when there is very little inflammation around. through understanding this change we can understand how the womb muscle cells start contracting too early in women who then go into labour prematurely.

I am currently researching how adding small molecules to the DNA in womb muscle cells turns labour contraction genes 'on' or 'off' during pregnancy and just before birth, this research will form the basis of my MSc thesis to be submitted in August 2017. I am fortunate to be carrying out this work in the laboratory of Dr Neil Chapman and the proposed PhD would build upon this project.

The PhD study would allow us to see how womb muscle cells work during pregnancy and how this changes during labour. In the long term this information could be used to develop a medication which can be used effectively to stop labour when it begins preterm, something which is not currently available.

I feel it is vital that this work is undertaken so we can begin to learn why the womb contracts too early in women suffering premature labour and help to make sure the 60,000 preterm babies currently born per year celebrate their birthdays when the time is right!


You can find out more information on the background to the project by clicking on Dr Chapman's name above or checking us out on Facebook at


As a way to say thank you we have some great rewards for everyone who donates to the project.


Please share this project with anyone who you think may support us - on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, your email contacts, your colleagues, your neighbours - in fact anyone you know! The more people who hear about the research the more likely we are to succeed.

You don't have to donate money to help the project but I would be extremely grateful if you did that too ;-)

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You will be invited to join my exclusive research blog which I will run for the duration of the PhD research. I'll be publishing a monthly, easily digestible summary of the research, debates, symposia, discussion and ideas I have or am introduced to - in short, anything I think you will find interesting, educational or entertaining. The blog will only be available to donors.

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Estimated delivery: 1 November 2017

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You will be invited to the exclusive blog and receive a personal thank you for your donation via email.

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Estimated delivery: 1 December 2017

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You will receive all of the above plus a thank you shout-out on social media (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram). This can include details of any ongoing projects you are organising which you would like mentioning!

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Estimated delivery: 1 December 2017

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As well as all of the above you will receive a signed and professionally bound copy of my thesis at the end of the research. This will be delivered to you in December 2020 once the research is completed.

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Estimated delivery: 1 December 2018

Pledge £1000 or more

You will be invited to join the exclusive blog, receive a personal thank you email and a shout-out on social media as above. Additionally you will receive a signed and professionally bound copy of my thesis where your generous donation will be acknowledged. This will be delivered once the research is complete in December 2020.

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Estimated delivery: 1 December 2018