March of Dimes Campaign To End Premature Birth

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March of Dimes

Dr. Vincent Lynch and his team are studying how the genes that control our reproductive systems evolved

Our genes make us what and how we are, and dictate everything that we will be, even when and how we’re born. And although human reproduction is unique, understanding the role of reproductive genes of other mammals is an area of scientific inquiry that hopefully will tell us which genes are involved in instigating birth, and by extension, which are involved in triggering birth to commence too early. This important and promising area of research is being funded by the March of Dimes and carried out by Dr. Vincent Lynch, at the University of Chicago-Northwestern-Duke Prematurity Research Center.

“Once upon a time, mammals laid eggs, just like their reptilian and amphibian cousins,” said Dr. Lynch. “But somewhere along the line, the genes that governed that process switched off, and some other genes, the ones that cause live births, switched on. That change forever set them and eventually, us on an evolutionary path that led to where we are now. Using evolution as a scan to identify those genes and how they work is a big first step in understanding our own reproductive catalysts.”

Dr. Lynch and his team have developed a unique method pioneered at the University of Chicago-Northwestern-Duke Prematurity Research Center to accelerate their work. Rather than manipulate the genes of test animals in the lab, a process that is both time consuming and unpredictable, Dr. Lynch’s team is using specially developed assays of cell cultures that can determine the role genes play in relation to hormonal changes that occur in pregnancy. In particular, they’re looking at two key areas: maternal recognition of pregnancy, and maternal-fetal communication. Other research has indicated that preterm birth may be initiated by a breakdown in the molecular dialogue between a mother and her baby. Their goal is to use these assays to determine if there is a gene that plays a role in one or both of those areas.

As an indication of how profound a role genetics plays in formation of reproductive systems, a look at the unique mammals that inhabit Australia is instructive. When that island continent drifted away from the rest of earth’s land masses approximately 200 million years ago, the animals trapped there developed along unique evolutionary paths, resulting in mammals that exist no where else, with reproductive traits that exist no where else. Take the duckbill platypus, for instance. This mammal apparently didn’t get the memo about switching to live births and so still gives birth by laying its eggs, even though it’s a mammal in every other respect. And it was recently discovered that kangaroos have a genetic trait that actually allows them to slow the growth of their embryos, during a drought, for example, so they’ll be born at a more opportune time.

Understanding how they regulate gestation might give us the clues about how to regulate the timing of our own human births, and perhaps teach us how we can bring our children into the world at just the right moment.

“Once we identify the genes that make up our reproductive framework, we’ll also need to figure out whether they’re turned on or not,” said Dr. Lynch. “Working with other researchers at other Prematurity Research Centers, we’ll be able to look at these switches and adjust them for optimum effect. That might make a huge difference.”

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