First transdisciplinary research center dedicated to identify causes of premature birth

March of Dimes and Stanford University School of Medicine Launch Research Center to Understand and Prevent Prematurity

The March of Dimes and Stanford University School of Medicine today launched the nation's first transdisciplinary research center dedicated to identifying the causes of premature birth. Prematurity is the number one reason for newborn death in the United States today, yet in nearly half of the cases of premature birth, there is no identifiable cause.

"Premature birth is far more common — and more serious — than most people realize," explained Dr. Jennifer Howse, president of the March of Dimes. "Some mothers who have done everything right still go into labor early, which puts their baby's health at risk — and right now, medical science has no answers for them."

"That's why we're working with Stanford to develop an innovative new research approach to examine the problem from every angle and find the answers that will allow us, one day, to prevent premature birth," she added.

The March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Stanford University School of Medicine will bring together specialists in disciplines ranging from neonatology and genetics to computer science and artificial intelligence. This unique, transdisciplinary team will be the first group of experts from diverse fields to work together so closely to study prematurity.

"We'll be assembling teams of scientists who might not normally be working together, or would not normally be working on this problem," said Dr. David Stevenson, Professor of Pediatrics and, by courtesy, of Obstetrics and Gynecology, at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. Dr. Stevenson will serve as principal investigator for the new research center.

"This transdisciplinary approach is important because we have to address all the factors that might contribute to a mother delivering a baby early," Stevenson continued.

The initial research will focus on four key areas:

  • Pattern Recognition: Analyze statewide and national databases to identify premature birth patterns in relation to seasonal, weather, geographical, regional health risks and other factors using artificial intelligence theory.
  • Maternal Genetic Biomarkers: Identify potential maternal genes and protein biomarkers that may be indicators of premature birth.
  • Infection and Inflammation: Explore the impact of the mother's health and immune response during pregnancy as a contributor to premature birth.
  • Placental Characteristics: Study the effect of placental genetics, implantation and function on premature birth.

The Stanford researchers expect the center to evolve over time, incorporating additional areas of scientific inquiry as new insights emerge.

"We're not making any a priori assumptions about the biological or environmental factors that contribute to premature birth," Dr. Stevenson said. "Our goal is to test new hypotheses and make discoveries that will reduce premature birth."

The March of Dimes has contributed $2 million toward the launch of the Prematurity Research Center in 2011 and will provide support for the project through 2020. A March of Dimes scientific review committee will evaluate the research progress annually and help shape its direction.

March of Dimes' goal, Dr. Howse said, is to accelerate the pace of research to prevent premature birth.

The urgency of this goal was highlighted by Kevin Bracy, a father of two premature babies, who shared his family story at the press conference at Stanford. His first son, Kobe, was born 12 weeks early. Now nine years old, Kobe is still in and out of the hospital due to long-term complications from premature birth. Kevin and his wife Jessica lost their second son, Kaleb, within a few hours of his birth.

"Despite all our family has been through," Bracy said, "I am hopeful that the research being launched here today will help save other families the pain of losing a child."

To make an impact on families as quickly as possible, the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center will not only strive to fill the knowledge gap about prematurity; the researchers will also work to turn that knowledge into clinical and policy-based solutions.

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