about prematurity
About Prematurity: Prematurity Research Initiative: Grantees, 2007
In February 2007, the March of Dimes awarded eight new grants as part of its Prematurity Research Initiative (PRI). The grantees for 2007 were:

James Lewis McManaman, PhD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and of physiology and biophysics at the University of Colorado at Denver. Dr. McManaman is looking for biological markers in vaginal fluid of pregnant women that may help predict recurrent premature births. If doctors can identify factors that distinguish women who deliver prematurely from women who do not, they may be able to predict preterm deliveries more reliably than is now possible. This could help ensure optimal care for babies born early. Also, identifying markers may shed light on the causes of preterm labor, which are now poorly understood.

Fred W. Turek, PhD, professor and director, Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology, Davee Department of Neurology, Northwestern University. Dr. Turek is studying how a genetic abnormality in mice disrupts the timing of fetal development and the length of pregnancy. The affected gene controls many daily biological cycles such as sleeping, waking, appetite, and levels of various hormones. The study may help researchers better understand human genes and the role they play in premature birth.

Emmet Hirsch, MD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, Evanston Northwestern Healthcare Research Institute, Feinberg School of Medicine. Infections and inflammation increase a woman's risk of having a very early premature baby; these babies are at high risk of suffering serious complications. Dr. Hirsch is studying whether a component of the immune system (a family of proteins called TLRs) plays a role in how infections lead to preterm labor. (TLR stands for toll-like receptors.) The researcher is also exploring whether use of a TLR-blocking agent might help prevent preterm delivery.

Jeffrey Clark Murray, MD, professor of pediatrics, Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine, University of Iowa. Family studies suggest that genetic factors are responsible for about 40 percent of spontaneous premature births. In his research on prematurity, Dr. Murray is conducting a comprehensive, genome-wide search. He is looking for two things: (1)) human gene variants associated with preterm delivery and (2) environmental factors that may interact with such variants to cause prematurity. The study is using the unique national health database of Denmark. This valuable informational resource consists of individual biological samples, linked to nutritional status, chemical exposures, infections and lifestyle factors. Identifying the complex causes of prematurity is essential to learning how to predict and prevent it.

Iain L. Buxton, DPharm, professor of pharmacology and of obstetrics and gynecology, University of Nevada School of Medicine. Dr. Buxton is exploring the functions of two protein structures embedded in the surface of uterine muscle cells. These structures help control cellular potassium levels, which in turn affect how and when the uterus contracts. If malfunctions in these structures are linked to preterm labor, doctors may be able to more reliably predict early deliveries. This study might also identify opportunities for new drugs to prevent or stop preterm labor.     

Elizabeth A. Bonney, MD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, University of Vermont College of Medicine. Dr. Bonney is studying lipopolysaccharide (LPS), a component of bacterial cell walls. LPS triggers preterm labor by activating an immune and inflammatory response in the pregnant woman. Dr. Bonney is exploring whether certain white blood cells may suppress the normal maternal response to LPS. Understanding specific tissues and cell types may lead to better ways to predict and prevent preterm labor.

Craig E. Rubens, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics, Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, University of Washington. Infections and inflammation increase a woman's risk of having a very early premature baby; these babies are at high risk of serious complications. Dr. Rubens is mapping how the immune systems of the pregnant woman and her fetus respond to uterine infections that move up from the lower genital tract. These responses can ultimately lead to preterm delivery. By understanding these processes, medical experts may be better able to predict and prevent infection-induced prematurity.

Douglas Dillon Taylor, PhD, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women's health, University of Louisville School of Medicine. Dr. Taylor is studying whether and how certain signals from the placenta suppress the pregnant woman's immune system until pregnancy reaches term. Abnormalities in these signals might trigger preterm birth. The study focuses on exosomes, tiny packets of immunity-suppressing molecules released by placental cells. If medical experts can analyze exosomes in maternal blood samples, they may be able to reliably predict preterm deliveries. Also, if researchers understand how exosomes malfunction, they may be able to learn how to correct the errors and prevent premature birth.

February 2007

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