In June of 2015, the March of Dimes joined with the University of Chicago, Northwestern and Duke to launch the fifth prematurity research center aimed exclusively at finding the unknown causes of premature birth. This demonstrates the commitment and enthusiasm of accomplished directors, investigators and faculty as they come together in this transdisciplinary and cross-institutional effort to solve the mysteries of premature birth. This team will collaborate with the other four centers as they pursue the challenging questions of what causes premature birth, and specifically address five interrelated transdisciplinary research themes around gene regulation.

Of the roughly 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 the statistics. It remains one of the most challenging health problems in modern medicine.

Premature babies (born before 37 weeks) have a greater risk of death and disability, including, but not limited to, cerebral palsy, cognitive impairments and 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 premature 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 prematurity birth rate in this country. The causes of premature 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 premature birth have not been successful. To solve the problem of prematurity, a whole new transdisciplinary approach is needed that involves  innovative technologic capabilities, unique databases and scientists from many disciplines. That’s why the March of Dimes and the leading academic and medical institutions at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and Duke University have brought together over 30 scientists, physicians, faculty and staff to create the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center UChicago-Northwestern-Duke.

The University of Chicago, Northwestern and Duke have strong institutional infrastructures for transdisciplinary research. The Center will engage the remarkable scientific capabilities of the highly respected clinical and academic institutions from each of the universities—all focused on a common effort to solve the medical mystery of premature birth.