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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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Transdisciplinary research centers

The March of Dimes is not only dedicated to helping those affected by premature birth, but also to preventing premature birth, to avoid the pain and costs of the NICU entirely. Only modest progress has been made in identifying the underlying causes of preterm birth so the March of Dimes has now made this a top research priority. We seek not mere incremental advances, but transformative discoveries, just as vaccines were for polio. Traditional approaches to the problem have not been successful. This is why we have launched five Prematurity Research Centers, to foster a new model of collaboration. These Centers integrate scientists from individual disciplines to form innovative collaborations that can accelerate research discoveries.

The unique approach of transdisciplinary research was developed in response to the multiple factors involved in triggering premature birth and the complexity of the problem. The strength of this method lies in the diversity of the participating investigators, reflecting the multiple possible causes. These causes involve many interactive biological factors that will not be uncovered by searching for singular risks from isolated disciplines. The more lines of inquiry we can pursue, the better the chance we will have of finding those that lead to solutions. In addition to physical scientists, such as pediatricians and obstetricians, and reproductive scientists, who have long attempted to illuminate the scientific basis of labor, we are bringing together scientists from divergent disciplines, many of whom were not previously engaged in prematurity research. These new "recruits" come from the fields of genomics, social sciences, bioinformatics, microbiology bioengineering, physics and many others.

All five Centers have launched across the country at leading academic institutions. The March of Dimes will invest $2 million a year for 5 years in each Center. The first Center was launched in 2011 at Stanford University School of Medicine, followed by the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center — Ohio Collaborative in 2013. In 2014, two more centers were launched. On November 10, the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Washington University was established in St. Louis, Mo. On November 17, highlighting World Prematurity Day, the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania was opened in Philadelphia, Pa. The final center, March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center University of Chicago-Northwestern-Duke was launched in 2015. Together, this network of five research centers leverage specific and complementary strengths to accelerate productivity. Collective progress will translate into diagnostics and treatments to prevent premature birth.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many babies are born prematurely each year?

In the United States, more than 450,000 babies are born too soon each year. Worldwide, 15 million babies are born prematurely.

What are the consequences of premature birth?

Prematurity is the leading cause of death in the first month of life. Worldwide, more than one million children die each year due to complications of premature birth. Babies who survive an early birth often face the risk of lifetime health challenges, such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, breathing problems, and vision and hearing loss.

Why is it important for a pregnancy to last at least 39 weeks?

If a pregnancy is healthy, it should go to at least 39 weeks. That’s because babies born at 39 and 40 completed weeks of pregnancy (called full term) have the best chance of a healthy start in life. Even babies born at 37 and 38 weeks (called early term) have a higher risk of newborn complications, like breathing problems. Babies born prematurely (before 37 weeks) have a higher risk of newborn health problems and lasting disabilities.

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