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Health, Science & Tech

UPMC and Penn Researchers Team Up to Investigate Causes of Preterm Birth

preterm_birth_unicef.jpg
Flickr user UNICEF Ethiopia
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Scientists are clear on the effects of preterm birth, that is, babies born before 37 weeks. Breathing, hearing and vision problems, difficulty feeding, cerebral palsy, and developmental delays are some of the challenges facing babies born too early.

But on the causes of preterm birth, researchers are less certain.

Unraveling that mystery is the core objective of the new $10 million Prematurity Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, one of five such centers created by the March of Dimes since 2011.

Magee-Womens Research Institute in Pittsburgh will collaborate with researchers at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine to investigate what Dr. Yoel Sadovsky, director of the institute, said is an under-studied phenomenon.

Research at Magee will focus on the metabolites that play a key role in the stimulation of signals that tell the uterus to contract and initiate birth.

“We don’t know what initiates them prematurely,” Sadovsky said. “Many of them play a key role at normal term birth, but what is it that sets up the whole cascade of events that leads to delivery at a time point that is far earlier than what it’s supposed to be?”

Sadovsky said the health conditions that affect people born prematurely do not necessarily originate at birth, but rather earlier in pregnancy and possibly even close to conception.

“If we can identify those (pregnant women) at risk and come up with a personalized approach to mitigate that risk, I think we can give much better hope and solutions to humankind,” he said.

In 2013, 10.7 percent of babies born in Pennsylvania were preterm. Preterm birth is the leading cause of newborn death in the U.S, and the leading cause of death for children under age five worldwide.

Sadovsky said about $26 billion is invested annually in caring for Americans with conditions and diseases related to preterm birth.

But he said the emotional toll of preterm birth on women and families is harder to quantify.

“Everybody looks at pregnancy as a happy time, when people are anticipating a crying baby (who) comes out at the right time, being 7 ½ pounds, and everything is happy after,” Sadovsky said. “But the reality is that the baby that is born preterm faces a huge set of challenges.”