The March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center network represents the most concerted effort in the world to investigate and identify the underlying causes of preterm birth. The six leading research institutions in North America and Europe—the establishment of the network’s first European center at Imperial College London was announced earlier this year—use a transdisciplinary approach to explore the multiple and complex factors associated with premature birth. This idea behind this innovative model is that collaboration and diversity, rather than isolation and specialization, are what will accelerate research progress and yield important discoveries.
To this end, each of the Prematurity Research Centers focuses on a different set of research themes that support the network’s broader goal of solving the mysteries of preterm birth. The themes are highly varied, but must all conform to a set of essential criteria: They must address a research subject that is considered to be of crucial importance in preventing preterm birth, and they must generate or refine new technologies that could yield new discoveries and insight into preterm birth. They must also utilize the expertise and resources available at the research center in question and serve as a strong foundation for transdisciplinary collaboration.
Some of the research themes currently being explored at the Prematurity Research Centers include the following:
At Stanford University
Bioinformatics gene-environment discovery—Dr. Atul Butte and his team of researchers are exploring whether the utilization of bioinformatics methods—that is, sophisticated computer modeling tools powered by huge quantities of data—can help us understand what causes, and how to diagnose, preterm birth.
Infection/inflammation discovery—Are the body’s various micro-organisms, their genetic components, and their reactions during pregnancy a factor in preterm birth? The research team led by Dr. David Relman, a professor of medicine, microbiology, and immunology, aims to find out.
Transcriptome and preterm birth—A significant challenge associated with preterm birth is that, at present, there is no way to know if or when it will happen. Dr. Stephen Quake and his colleagues are working to develop a diagnostic tool that will allow clinicians, through a simple blood test, to detect mother or baby distress signals before any clinical symptoms of preterm birth have been observed.
At the Ohio Collaborative
Molecular developmental biology of pregnancy—A research team led by Dr. Louis Muglia, a former pediatrician and now the director of the Center for Prevention of Preterm Birth at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, aims to explore the relationship between maternal-fetal signals and long-term pregnancy outcomes. To do so, the team will develop and use animal models to test and experiment with gene and pathway discoveries that research teams at other Prematurity Research Centers have made.
Sociobiology of racial disparities in preterm birth—In her work with the Ohio Collaborative, Dr. Irina Buhimschi wants to answer a question that has confounded researchers and physicians for years: Why are the rates of preterm birth experienced by one group of women with similar racial and ethnic backgrounds so dramatically different from another group, also with the same racial and ethnic characteristics?
At Washington University in St. Louis
The influence of chronodisruption on the risk of preterm birth—A team of scientists at this research center are exploring whether our circadian rhythms—that is, when we prefer to sleep, when we do sleep, and how long we sleep for—play a role in bringing babies to term. Given that circadian rhythms have significant influences on things like metabolism, mood, the immune system, and addictive behaviors, it’s an interesting hypothesis that the disruption of these rhythms in the mother or the fetus could lead to preterm birth.
At the University of Pennsylvania
Bioenergetics and genetics—Given the high demand that pregnancy puts on a woman’s bioenergetics—that is, the body’s system for the consumption and conversion of energy—it may make sense that when critical gestational organs are deprived of this chemical energy, it could contribute to preterm birth. This is the premise of the research led by Dr. Rebecca Simmons, who will focus in particular on the role played in this equation by mitochondria, or the body’s “cellular power plants” that are found in every human cell.
At the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and Duke University
Evolutionary systems genetics—According to research leader Dr. Vincent Lynch, one of the problems hindering our understanding of preterm birth is not only our lack of knowledge about how reproductive genes function but, even more fundamentally, about which genes are involved in term and preterm birth to begin with. This team hopes to remedy this lack of knowledge by studying how pregnancy has evolved across multiple species in order to better identify which genes play which roles in human pregnancy. The team also aims to functionally characterize the maternal and fetal genes that are involved in maternal-fetal interactions and spontaneous labor induction.