Oxytocin receptor antagonists for inhibiting preterm labour

Tocolytic drugs suppress preterm labour and have the potential to postpone preterm birth long enough to, hopefully, improve infant outcome. This may be by allowing normal growth and maturation of the baby, or by allowing time for administration of magnesium sulphate to reduce risk of cerebral palsy and corticosteroids to help the baby's lungs and other organs to mature. They may also provide the opportunity, if necessary, for the mother to be transferred to a hospital that has facilities to provide neonatal intensive care. However, prolonging pregnancy may instead have adverse outcomes for the baby and so it is important to assess infant outcomes alongside duration of pregnancy. Oxytocin receptor antagonists (ORAs) are a group of tocolytic drugs, and we undertook this review to see if ORAs prolonged pregnancy and improved outcomes for infants compared with no treatment or with other tocolytic drugs.

The tocolytic drugs, atosiban and barusiban, were the only ORAs we found that had been studied in trials; some trials compared with no treatment and others compared atosiban with betamimetics (another group of tocolytic drugs). We identified 14 studies, involving 2485 women. We found that, although atosiban resulted in fewer maternal side effects than other tocolytic drugs (especially betamimetics), atosiban was not effective in delaying or preventing preterm birth or improving neonatal outcome, and may possibly contribute to poorer infant outcomes. Further well-designed studies would be helpful, especially in women with threatened preterm at low gestations where preterm birth puts babies at particularly high risk of death or disability.

Atosiban is no better than placebo or other drugs in delaying or preventing preterm birth but it has fewer maternal side effects compared to other tocolytics.

Authors' conclusions: 

This review did not demonstrate superiority of ORA (largely atosiban) as a tocolytic agent compared with placebo, betamimetics or CCB (largely nifedipine) in terms of pregnancy prolongation or neonatal outcomes, although ORA was associated with less maternal adverse effects than treatment with the CCB or betamimetics. The finding of an increase in infant deaths and more births before completion of 28 weeks of gestation in one placebo-controlled study warrants caution. However, the number of women enrolled at very low gestations was small. Due to limitations of small numbers studied and methodological quality, further well-designed randomised controlled trials are needed. Further comparisons of ORA versus CCB (which has a better side-effect profile than betamimetics) are needed. Consideration of further placebo-controlled studies seems warranted. Future studies of tocolytic agents should measure all important short- and long-term outcomes for women and infants, and costs.

Read the full abstract...

Preterm birth, defined as birth between 20 and 36 completed weeks, is a major contributor to perinatal morbidity and mortality globally. Oxytocin receptor antagonists (ORA), such as atosiban, have been specially developed for the treatment of preterm labour. ORA have been proposed as effective tocolytic agents for women in preterm labour to prolong pregnancy with fewer side effects than other tocolytic agents.


To assess the effects on maternal, fetal and neonatal outcomes of tocolysis with ORA for women with preterm labour compared with placebo or any other tocolytic agent.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group's Trials Register (1 December 2013).

Selection criteria: 

We included all randomised controlled trials (published and unpublished) of ORA for tocolysis of labour between 20 and 36 completed weeks' gestation.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently evaluated methodological quality and extracted trial data. When required, we sought additional data from trial authors. Results are presented as risk ratio (RR) for categorical and mean difference (MD) for continuous data with the 95% confidence intervals (CI). Where appropriate, the number needed to treat for benefit (NNTB) and the number needed to treat for harm (NNTH) were calculated.

Main results: 

This review update includes eight additional studies (790 women), giving a total of 14 studies involving 2485 women.

Four studies (854 women) compared ORA (three used atosiban and one barusiban) with placebo. Three studies were considered at low risk of bias in general (blinded allocation to treatment and intervention), the fourth study did not adequately blind the intervention. No difference was shown in birth less than 48 hours after trial entry (average RR 1.05, 95% CI 0.15 to 7.43; random-effects, (two studies, 152 women), perinatal mortality (RR 2.25, 95% CI 0.79 to 6.38; two studies, 729 infants), or major neonatal morbidity. ORA (atosiban) resulted in a small reduction in birthweight (MD -138.86 g, 95% CI -250.53 to -27.18; two studies with 676 infants). In one study, atosiban resulted in an increase in extremely preterm birth (before 28 weeks' gestation) (RR 3.11, 95% CI 1.02 to 9.51; NNTH 31, 95% CI 8 to 3188) and infant deaths (up to 12 months) (RR 6.13, 95% CI 1.38 to 27.13; NNTH 28, 95% CI 6 to 377). However, this finding may be confounded due to randomisation of more women with pregnancy less than 26 weeks' gestation to atosiban. ORA also resulted in an increase in maternal adverse drug reactions requiring cessation of treatment in comparison with placebo (RR 4.02, 95% CI 2.05 to 7.85; NNTH 12, 95% CI 5 to 33). No differences were shown in preterm birth less than 37 weeks' gestation or any other adverse neonatal outcomes. No differences were evident by type of ORA, although data were limited.

Eight studies (1402 women) compared ORA (atosiban only) with betamimetics; four were considered of low risk of bias (blinded allocation to treatment and to intervention). No statistically significant difference was shown in birth less than 48 hours after trial entry (RR 0.89, 95% CI 0.66 to 1.22; eight studies with 1389 women), very preterm birth (RR 1.70, 95% CI 0.89 to 3.23; one study with 145 women), extremely preterm birth (RR 0.84, 95% CI 0.37 to 1.92; one study with 244 women) or perinatal mortality (RR 0.55, 95% CI 0.21 to 1.48; three studies with 816 infants). One study (80 women), of unclear methodological quality, showed an increase in the interval between trial entry and birth (MD 22.90 days, 95% CI 18.03 to 27.77). No difference was shown in any reported measures of major neonatal morbidity (although numbers were small). ORA (atosiban) resulted in less maternal adverse effects requiring cessation of treatment (RR 0.05, 95% CI 0.02 to 0.11; NNTB 6, 95% CI 6 to 6; five studies with 1161 women).

Two studies including (225 women) compared ORA (atosiban) with calcium channel blockers (CCB) (nifedipine only). The studies were considered as having high risk of bias as neither study blinded the intervention and in one study it was not known if allocation was blinded. No difference was shown in birth less than 48 hours after trial entry (average RR 1.09, 95% CI 0.44 to 2.73, random-effects; two studies, 225 women) and extremely preterm birth (RR 2.14, 95% CI 0.20 to 23.11; one study, 145 women). No data were available for the outcome of perinatal mortality. One small trial (145 women), which did not employ blinding of the intervention, showed an increase in the number of preterm births (before 37 weeks' gestation) (RR 1.56, 95% CI 1.13 to 2.14; NNTH 5, 95% CI 3 to 19), a lower gestational age at birth (MD -1.20 weeks, 95% CI -2.15 to -0.25) and an increase in admission to neonatal intensive care unit (RR 1.70, 95% CI 1.17 to 2.47; NNTH 5, 95% CI 3 to 20). ORA (atosiban) resulted in less maternal adverse effects (RR 0.38, 95% CI 0.21 to 0.68; NNTB 6, 95% CI 5 to 12; two studies, 225 women) but not maternal adverse effects requiring cessation of treatment (RR 0.36, 95% CI 0.01 to 8.62; one study, 145 women). No longer-term outcome data were included.