Every year around the world, approximately 15 million babies are born before reaching full term. Many babies survive premature birth but others struggle mightily. Premature births are the subject of many scientific studies, including a recent one that links stress-related premature aging of the placenta to premature rupture of membranes (PROM). The source of stress used in the study was tobacco smoke.

Dr. Ramkumar Menon led the study from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, where he is an assistant professor in the medical school’s department of obstetrics and gynecology. Menon and his research team were looking for reasons other than infection that would cause premature rupture of membranes (pPROM) before week 37, or breaking of the water before week 37 of the pregnancy.

Antibiotics are the standard course of treatment for women in jeopardy of pPROM caused by infection but the drugs don’t always prevent early deliveries. Antibiotics are sometimes prescribed in conjunction with antioxidants but even the combined treatment isn’t always successful.

Menon felt that further understanding of oxidative stress and the damage it causes could lead to improved preventive measures. Oxidation of cells is thought to be a driving force behind the aging process, producing undesirable results that include the development of wrinkles, skin damage, hair loss, flagging energy levels, and other age-related changes. Antioxidant supplements are often taken to counteract the aging effect of oxidation and a diet high in colorful fruits and vegetables is encouraged. The pigmentation chemicals giving color to fresh produce are natural antioxidants.

Environmental toxins, such as air pollution, are oxidative stress factors that are difficult to avoid. Other factors that can be minimized or eliminated include smoking, drinking alcohol, poor nutrition, excess weight, and infection.

Menon chose cigarette smoke to be the oxidative stress factor in his study of human fetal membrane tissue. He exposed this tissue to cigarette smoke extract in carefully controlled lab settings. The experiments indicated tissue breakdown once oxidative stress levels became too severe to maintain the integrity of the placental membranes.

The research indicates some degree of oxidative stress can be managed but only until the stress level overwhelms the ability of antioxidants to keep it in check. Once a certain threshold of stress is reached, placental tissue begins aging rapidly, eventually triggering pPROM.

Source: Menon, Ramkumar, et al. “Histological Evidence of Oxidative Stress and Premature Senescence in Preterm Premature Rupture of the Human Fetal Membranes Recapitulated in Vitro.” The American Journal of Pathology. Elsevier Inc. May 19, 2014. Web. Jun 8, 2014.