March of Dimes, the leading organization fighting for the health of all moms and babies, is pleased to announce the opening of the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center (PRC) at UC San Francisco (UCSF). This new PRC, which will focus on prematurity data sharing, computational drug discovery and electronic medical record research, is part of the organization’s shift to speed the pace of discovery to reduce rates of preterm birth in the U.S. To support these efforts, March of Dimes has named Dr. Emre Seli as its Chief Scientific Officer, responsible for leading the organization’s vast research portfolio.
“Research remains the foundation of our work to improve the health of all moms and babies and the work that’s under way at our PRCs represents the heart of our research program,” said March of Dimes President and CEO Stacey D. Stewart. “Under Dr. Seli’s leadership, I’m confident that our increased investments will further advance our understanding of preterm birth and yield real breakthroughs that will improve health outcomes for moms and babies.”
Preterm birth is a problem that cuts across all demographics in the United States and affects 1 in 10 babies born each year. Despite the advancements of modern science, preterm birth – and birth timing in general – is still a mystery to the medical community. The new UCSF PRC will be the newest in March of Dimes’ multi-faceted research network which is founded in a translational research approach and is dedicated to not only solving the challenges of preterm birth, but providing actionable solutions for the medical community.
“Solving the challenges of preterm birth is a difficult goal and accomplishing that goal will require the medical community to reframe their processes. The traditional medical research approach will not be enough,” said. Dr. Emre Seli, March of Dimes Chief Scientific Officer and Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at Yale School of Medicine. “Instead, March of Dimes has invested in multiple avenues of research to bring together different sources of intellect, experience and technology to find a solution to preterm birth challenges. The new UCSF research center is the latest addition to this collaborating network.”
The UCSF PRC is part of the March of Dimes global network, with other locations at Imperial College, London; University of Pennsylvania; Stanford University; University of Chicago-Northwestern-Duke and the Ohio Collaborative (Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Case Western Reserve and Vanderbilt University). Each of these centers channels its own expertise to investigate different assigned research themes.
The UCSF PRC will focus on three goals:
- Expand Data Sharing – March of Dimes Database for Preterm Birth Research, co-directed by Dr. Marina Sirota, an associate professor in the Bakar Computational Health Sciences Institute and the department of Pediatrics at UCSF, and Dr. Tomiko Oskotsky, a senior research scientist in the Sirota Lab, launched in 2020 to collect, organize and make public molecular data from all the PRCs. The greater computational community is encouraged to make use of the data to make new discoveries that can address some of the toughest challenges in preterm birth research.
- Computational Drug Repurposing – applying this groundbreaking technique which seeks to match existing, market-approved medications with previously unassociated medical conditions using publicly available data to mothers at risk of delivering prematurely, a first in the medical field.
- Leveraging Electronic Medical Records (EMR) – across the University of California medical system, UCSF will apply advanced machine learning techniques to make new hypothesis about links between premature birth and other maternal clinical features. The work will be expanded across the country and beyond to identify women at risk of future preterm birth and to develop appropriate interventions.
“I’m honored to be a part of the March of Dimes prematurity research network, which has been making tremendous progress to uncover the root causes of prematurity through countless research projects over the years,” said Dr. Sirota, who will lead the center. “The resulting data from these inquiries, when looked at together through the lens of computational analytics, has the potential to lead to scientific discoveries that could one day drastically alter prematurity clinical care in this country and around the world.”
“Our designation as an official PRC will provide the resources to continue leveraging our computational and data sharing expertise towards generating therapeutic and diagnostic hypotheses and moving them to clinical trials so we can one day help women experience far fewer incidences of preterm birth,” she added.
Dr. Sirota, a celebrated women’s health computational scientist who also created a program to train minority high school students in the fields of AI and big data, has been part of the March of Dimes Stanford University Prematurity Research Center since 2014, playing a vital part in using advanced computational techniques to glean new insights from various types of molecular data and beginning work on a data-sharing repository for preterm birth research.
Recent Research Success
The opening of the UCSF PRC comes at a prolific time for March of Dimes PRC research. In the last five months alone, PRC investigators have published three landmark studies in the Nature family of journals, they are:
- Imperial College, London: reported their development of a first-of-its-kind vaginal microbiome testing device for preterm labor. In a second study, the PRC uncovered the immune mechanisms that may be responsible for preterm labor in the presence of increased microbiome diversity.
- Stanford University: published findings on the development of a blood test for early detection of preeclampsia, an achievement that far exceeds today’s diagnostic tools.
All three studies gain scientists enormous new insights into diagnosis of preterm birth and preeclampsia, responsible for an overwhelming share of maternal and fetal health complications and deaths globally.