New Collaborations, New Advances

WHEN NOVEL TECHNOLOGY AND INNOVATIVE APPROACHES ARE APPLIED TO THE STUDY OF PREMATURE BIRTH—SOME OF WHICH HAD NEVER BEEN TRIED BEFORE—THE RESULTS ADVANCE THE ENTIRE FIELD.

For decades obstetricians led the study of premature birth, and the search for root causes turned up little in the way of results because the narrow, obstetric point of view didn’t yield big picture answers for all moms and babies. Premature birth is triggered by so many factors, and every mom and every birth has a different combination of interactions, which requires a radically different approach.

A more transdisciplinary approach, to be exact, like the one March of Dimes has fostered, with the use of new technologies and novel approaches, is already yielding unexpected and important advances. Our Prematurity Research Centers (PRCs) include collaboration by design—they invite investigators from different disciplines with different expertise to work together. Today our researchers have reinvigorated the study of premature birth with previously unimagined connections.

When partnerships are created, they generate new advancements. For example, one of the first initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania Prematurity Research Center was to identify potential collaborators who were experts in areas that filled gaps in the existing preterm birth research. Researchers at the University wanted to examine the role of mitochondria and mitochondrial genetics, and with the help of their principal investigator, Dr. Deborah Driscoll, they connected with several geneticists with expertise in metabolism and bioenergetics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Dr. Driscoll also expanded existing collaborations. For example, a researcher studying the cervix at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Michal Elovitz, was collaborating with Dr. Jacques Ravel at the University of Maryland. That collaboration was expanded to include Dr. Bushman and Dr. Wu at the Penn-Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Microbiome Center. They drew interest from an engineering team at Columbia who was studying cervical remodeling and wanted to collaborate,

while a team from Magee Women’s Hospital in Pittsburg led by Dr. Sadovsky, studying lipidomics and placental dysfunction, complemented the PRC’s interest in the studying the placenta. That work, in turn, was advanced by a perinataologist at Penn, Dr. Sam Parry, and an engineer, Dr. Dan Huh, also at Penn, who built a placenta on a chip. Dr. Lou Soslowsky, an engineer and Director of the Penn Musculo-Skeletal Institute, specializes in the study of tendons and joined the team after a chance meeting with Dr. Elovitz at their synagogue where they discussed the similarities of their work.

The entire team’s structure has evolved over time in formal and non-formal ways to support three research themes—mitochondrial genetics and bioenergetics; cervical remodeling; and placental dysfunction. In addition, the research center has a very robust clinical core at Penn that has established an invaluable bio-repository of samples, which has become instrumental in accelerating the work carried out at the other centers.

None of this work would be possible without the fundamental infrastructure to support and produce these diverse partnerships and collaborations. “It’s a new paradigm that we have adopted here at Penn that’s going to be critical in addressing other important problems we face in women’s health,” said Dr. Driscoll. “The ability to sit in the room with geneticists, microbiologists, immunologists, engineers, obstetricians, pediatricians and neonatologists is exciting. The research we’re doing at the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Centers is expanding our knowledge. I think it’s the most impactful work we’ve ever done.”

2018 Q3 PREMATURITY RESEARCH CENTERS UPDATE