WellBeing, the health research charity for women and babies, has awarded a grant of £80,000 to investigate premature labour

It will fund a pioneering project that could help reduce the number of newborn babies who die or are handicapped in pre-term deliveries.

The two-year project, due to start in July at the University of Warwick and Walsgrave Hospital in Coventry, aims to investigate what happens in premature labour - focusing on understanding how cells function in the uterus at the start of labour and how they contract.

About ten per cent of all deliveries worldwide occur pre-term and it is the single largest cause of handicap and death in babies.

Despite these statistics, there is no treatment that can reliably delay delivery and improve the outcome for the baby.

Probably because we do not fully understand what causes the onset of premature labour, it has also been difficult to develop an effective, long-term treatment once it starts.

The research will be undertaken by a team of doctors, headed by Professor Steve Thornton.

He said: "Pre-term labour is a major health problem.

"All of our work is associated with finding out how the uterus contracts because we feel this is crucial for the development of drugs which will effectively treat premature labour."

State-of-the-art technology will be used to study why some, but not all, cells of the uterus respond to the hormone oxytocin - which may cause uterine contractions and labour.

The research team has found that, in contrast to long-held beliefs, not all the cells in the uterus are the same and only some respond to this hormone.

The team aims to investigate why this is important for controlling the start of labour and how the process can be modified in order to treat premature labour.

Professor Thornton said: "This is ground-breaking research which we anticipate will sow the seeds for the development of effective drugs for the treatment of premature labour.

"The funding is crucial for us to answer important questions which should lead to clinical advances in the not too distant future."

WellBeing is the fundraising and research arm of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and has been devoted to ensuring the better health of women and their babies for more than 37 years.

During its existence, the charity has made more than £17.5 million in grants to medical research in three main areas: Pregnancy, birth and the care of newborn babies; women's cancers; quality of life conditions such as the menopause, osteoporosis and incontinence.

To find out more, visit the web site at www.wellbeing.org.uk