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New Research Aims to Solve the Mystery of Premature Birth

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

Stanford, California — Wednesday, March 30, 2011

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The March of Dimes and Stanford University School of Medicine today launched the nation’s first transdisciplinary research center dedicated to identifying the causes ofpremature birth. Prematurityis the number one reason for newborn death in the United States today, yet in nearlyhalf 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 Medicinewill 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 fieldsto worktogether 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.

About Stanford University School of Medicine
Stanford University Medical Center integrates research, medical education and patient care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. For more information, please visit mednews.stanford.edu.

About March of Dimes
Founded in 1938 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the March of Dimes is the leading nonprofit organization for pregnancy and baby health. With chapters nationwide, the March of Dimes works to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality.

For the latest resources and health information, visit our websites marchofdimes.org and nacersano.org. To participate in our annual signature fundraising event, visit marchforbabies.org. If you have been affected by prematurity or birth defects, visit our shareyourstory.org community to find comfort and support. For detailed national, state and local perinatal statistics, visit persistats.org. You can also find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

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