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. Prematurity 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 cerebral palsy, cognitive impairments, or sensory conditions. The earlier babies are 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 reduced 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 interactions.
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 St. Louis have brought together over 30 scientists, physicians, faculty members, and staff to create the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Washington University in St. Louis.
The March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Washington University in St. Louis is based on a commitment to develop a strong infrastructure for transdisciplinary research. It will engage the remarkable scientific capabilities of the highly respected clinical and academic institutions of Washington University in St. Louis, Texas A&M, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, University of Pennsylvania, and Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern—all focused on a common effort to solve the medical mystery of preterm birth.