In November of 2014, the March of Dimes joined with the University of Pennsylvania and other leading hospitals to launch the fourth transdisciplinary research center aimed exclusively at finding what causes preterm birth. The March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania demonstrates the commitment and enthusiasm of a team of accomplished investigators and faculty as they come together in this transdisciplinary and cross-institutional effort to solve the mysteries of preterm birth.

As the leading cause of newborn death in the U.S., preterm birth is far more serious than most people realize. And we need to know much more about its causes before we can do a better job of prevention.

Of the slightly more than 4 million babies born in the United States every year, 1 in 9 babies are born prematurely, a rate higher than that of most developed nations. While our country’s premature birth dropped for the sixth year in a row to 11.4 percent, it remains one of the most intractable public health problems. According to the Institute of Medicine, premature birth costs society at least $26 billion a year and prematurity remains the number one killer of newborns.

Despite the medical advances in obstetrics, gynecology, and the health and treatment of women during pregnancy, very little has influenced those statistics. It is one of the most intractable health challenges in modern medicine.

Preterm babies (born before 37 weeks) have a greater risk of death and disability, including, but not limited to cerebral palsy, cognitive impairments, or sensory conditions. The earlier a baby is born, the smaller they are, and the more serious their health challenges. All these issues converge, contributing to lifelong hardship for their families, and burdensome economic costs to society. And yet, no one knows what causes preterm birth, or how to prevent it. It remains one of our great medical mysteries.

Certainly, there are some known factors associated with prematurity. However, that knowledge has neither led to generally effective preventive treatments, nor substantially impacted the high preterm birth rate in this country. The causes of preterm birth may have roots in complex gene-environment interactions, requiring researchers to consider multiple risk factors—biological, behavioral, social, physical and environmental—as well as their interaction.

Identifying those causes will require new research approaches and the assembly of scientists from diverse disciplines, sharing rich databases of information about the human condition—all linked in a way that will finally make it possible to construct an evolving model of prematurity and its consequences.

As more traditional risk factors are understood in the context of lifestyle factors, combined with information from new and evolving fields, such as genomics and systems biology, there will be a better way to understand the maternal, placental and fetal interactions.

Purpose – solving the problem of prematurity

Traditional approaches to solving preterm birth have not been successful. To solve the problem of prematurity, a whole new transdisciplinary approach is needed involving innovative technologic capabilities and unique databases with scientists from many disciplines. That’s why the March of Dimes and the leading academic and medical institutions in Pennsylvania have brought together over 40 scientists, physicians, faculty and staff to create the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

The University of Pennsylvania has a strong institutional infrastructure for transdisciplinary research. It will engage the remarkable scientific capabilities of the highly respected clinical and academic institutions from the University of Pennsylvania, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Magee Women’s Research Institute, University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons—all focused on a common effort to solve the medical mystery of preterm birth.