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Prematurity research

  • Researchers are working to identify the causes of premature birth.
  • In progress: new treatments to prevent or halt preterm labor.
  • Medical breakthroughs improve the care of premature babies.
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Sample prematurity research grants

Richard Lambert Auten, MD, Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, is seeking to devise better ways to deliver nitric oxide (NO) to the lungs of premature infants who are at high risk of bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD). This chronic lung disease is common in premature babies who have been treated for breathing difficulties. Inhaled NO treatment helps prevent inflammation, which contributes to BPD, but has not yet proven successful in preventing BPD.

Iain L. Buxton, PharmD, University of Nevada School of Medicine in Reno, is studying variant versions of a protein structure in uterine muscle cells to see if any of these variants are linked with preterm labor. These structures appear to help keep the uterus relaxed during pregnancy. This study could improve identification of women at high risk of premature delivery and, ultimately, allow early treatment to prevent it.

Erika Chiong Claud, MD, University of Chicago, is investigating whether use of certain antibiotics in premature infants may alter gut bacteria and increase susceptibility to necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a life-threatening intestinal complication that is most common in babies born very prematurely. This study could possibly lead to changes in the care of premature babies to help prevent NEC.

Kip Connor, PhD, Children’s Hospital, Boston, is studying the role of omega-3 fatty acids (nutrients found in certain fatty fish) in preventing abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eye that can lead to retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). ROP is a common complication of very premature birth and can lead to blindness. This study could possibly lead to nutritional treatments that could help prevent ROP.

Stephen Lye, PhD, Mount Sinai Hospital, University of Toronto, Canada, is investigating how inflammatory proteins (cytokines) produced by the uterus may contribute to the chain of events that results in term or preterm labor. Because these events occur early in labor, they may be targets for new drugs to prevent preterm labor.

Sam Mesiano, PhD, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, is seeking to identify genes and other factors that help trigger labor, at term or prematurely. A better understanding of biological events that normally start labor may lead to development of novel drugs to prevent premature delivery.

Deborah McColl Money, MD, University of British Columbia, Canada, is using new genetic technologies to detect and analyze vaginal microbes that contribute to preterm premature rupture of the membranes (PPROM), a leading cause of spontaneous premature delivery. This could lead to more accurate identification of women at risk of PPROM, as well as new treatments to prevent it.

Anne M. Moon, MD, PhD, University of Utah in Salt Lake City, is studying how a protein regulates the development of the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs where gas exchange occurs. Babies born prematurely may have fewer and less mature alveoli than babies born at term, often contributing to a breathing problem called respiratory distress syndrome (RDS). This study could improve treatment for premature babies with RDS and for babies with lung underdevelopment due to other causes.

Jeffrey Murray, MD, University of Iowa, Iowa City, is conducting a comprehensive search of the entire human genome for gene variants that contribute to spontaneous preterm delivery. He also is seeking to identify environmental factors that may interact with such variants to cause prematurity. Identifying the complex causes of spontaneous prematurity is essential to learning how to predict it reliably and prevent it.

Kristina M. Adams Waldorf, MD, University of Washington in Seattle, is studying how uterine stretching may trigger preterm labor, as a step toward developing drug treatments to prevent stretch-induced labor. Uterine stretching appears to be an important stimulus of preterm labor in pregnancies with twins and other multiples and in pregnancies with excess amniotic fluid.

Research breakthroughs

From the PKU test to surfactant and nitric oxide therapies, March of Dimes funded research is saving the lives of thousands of babies.

Most common questions

Is premature birth a serious health problem?

Yes. Premature babies are at increased risk of newborn health complications, including breathing and intestinal problems and bleeding in the brain. They also are at increased risk of death and lasting disabilities, including intellectual disabilities, behavioral problems, cerebral palsy and vision and hearing loss.

What is late-preterm birth?

Late-preterm birth refers to babies born between 34 and 36 weeks of pregnancy. More than 70 percent of premature babies are born at this time. While these babies are usually healthier than babies born earlier, they are 3 times more likely to die in the first year of life than full-term infants. They also are at increased risk of newborn health problems, including breathing and feeding problems. Some late-preterm births result from early induction of labor or cesarean delivery due to pregnancy complications. However, in some cases, early delivery may occur without good medical justification. Unless there are medical problems, women should wait until at least 39 weeks to schedule an induced labor or c-section to prevent possible prematurity-related problems in their babies.

Which women are at greatest risk for premature birth?

Three groups of women are at greatest risk. These include women who have had a previous premature birth, women who are pregnant with twins or more, and women with certain abnormalities of the uterus and cervix. Treatment during pregnancy with the hormone progesterone can help reduce the risk of another premature birth in some women who have had a previous premature birth. These women should discuss with their health care provider whether this treatment is right for them.

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