Preterm birth is a critical health problem in the United States, despite modern technology and the vast medical knowledge about premature babies. While the critical challenges facing babies born before 37 weeks are known and well documented, it is not understood what causes a woman to go prematurely into labor.
In an effort to fill this knowledge gap, the University of Chicago Medicine has teamed with Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Duke University School of Medicine and the March of Dimes Foundation to establish a collaborative aimed at unraveling the mysteries of premature birth and helping more women have healthy, full-term babies.
Leaders and researchers from each institution on June 2 announced the launch of a new March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center, which will focus on identifying the regulatory genes responsible for ensuring a pregnancy continues to full term and how stress can influence those genes. The center will be led by Carole Ober, the Blum-Riese Professor and chair of Human Genetics in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Chicago. The March of Dimes will commit $10 million over the next five years toward the effort.
The center is the fifth in the nation devoted to prematurity research. The Chicago collaborative will engage investigators from various disciplines including genetics, bioinformatics, stem cell biology, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, statistics, computer science and epidemiology from across the three academic medical centers. Ober anticipates fresh insights from this multidisciplinary team of world-renowned experts could reveal new gene expression pathways and novel therapeutic strategies for altering the expression of relevant genes, resulting in lower preterm birth rates.
“Today, we understand virtually nothing about the cellular and molecular mechanisms that trigger normal birth,” Ober said. “Our center will focus on one central question: Does the misregulation of key genes cause premature birth? We’ll approach this challenge from two angles: First, studying the changes that happen in normal pregnancy, with respect to gene regulation; and then trying to understand what part of those mechanisms go awry.”
The scope of the project is so large that Ober immediately recognized the need to assimilate an adept and driven team. “The strength of the center,” she said, “lies in the seamless collaboration of many talented researchers with diverse expertise who share a common commitment to unraveling the causes of preterm birth.”
Preterm birth is the most common and costly health problem for newborns in the United States, affecting nearly half a million babies each year. It is the leading cause of newborn death, and babies who survive often face a lifetime of health challenges, such as vision and breathing problems and learning disabilities. Even those born just a few weeks early have higher rates of hospitalization and illness than full-term infants.
The prematurity research center will operate in the backdrop of one of the largest neonatal intensive care units in the Midwest. The Margaret M. and George A. Stephen Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital provides advanced specialty care for more than 1,000 infants each year. Treating a diverse population on Chicago’s South Side, Comer Children’s neonatologists treat a higher percentage of premature and low birth-weight newborns than other care providers in the city. The premature birthrate among African American women is almost twice that of any other racial group in the country. Some of this disparity, researchers say, may be the result of lifelong exposure to stress.
“We’ll be paying particular attention to racial and socioeconomic groups that have elevated prematurity rates,” Ober said. “We think that stress may directly affect gene regulation and manifest itself in biology. While the genes themselves do not change, those genes may be turned up or down with the stress of discrimination or poverty. We’re excited to pursue this line of research.”
The March of Dimes is the nation’s leading nonprofit dedicated to research and education toward healthier pregnancies and babies. The first March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center opened at Stanford University School of Medicine in 2011. Other centers include The Ohio Collaborative—a partnership of academic institutions and medical centers in Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland–and centers at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Pennsylvania. Along with the Chicago collaboration, the five centers will form an interactive research hub.
“This new Prematurity Research Center continues our commitment to understanding the underlying causes of preterm birth. Too many babies, here in Illinois and throughout the United States, are born too soon,” said Jennifer L. Howse, president of the March of Dimes. “We’re excited to add the expertise of renowned scientists at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and Duke University to our specialized network of investigators nationwide working to discover precisely what causes early labor, and how it can be prevented.”