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March of Dimes provides $2.7 million in new funding for preterm birth research

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y., FEB. 11, 2009 Scientists intend to identify microbes that may cause preterm labor in some women, investigate the role of an enzyme in preventing uterine contractions and an early birth, and look at different groups of women to find genetic and environmental risk factors for prematurity.

The work of seven researchers will be supported for the next three years by new March of Dimes Prematurity Research Initiative (PRI) grants. The nearly $2.7 million in new grants continues March of Dimes support for efforts to predict and prevent preterm birth. These 2009 grants bring the five-year-old program's grant total to nearly $14 million.

"This research is critical to ending the epidemic of preterm birth," said Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, president of the organization. "That's why we created the PRI grants and continue to award them even in these difficult economic times. Because the goal is for every baby to be born healthy and full-term."

Jennifer Condon, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh, is one of the new PRI grant recipients who's seeking clues to what causes both normal labor and premature labor. Her work focuses on an enzyme called caspase-3 that typically is involved in cell turnover.

"We think we've found a central mechanism for why the pregnant uterus usually stays quiet for nine months," Dr. Condon says. "Caspase-3 may be what prevents the uterus from contracting during a normal, healthy pregnancy. We hypothesize that inappropriate elimination of this enzyme from the pregnant uterus may be the cause of the onset of preterm labor."

Caspase-3 is positively regulated by progesterone and other studies have shown that regular injections of a form of progesterone found naturally during pregnancy can prevent some preterm births in women who have had a prior preterm birth.

"The March of Dimes is the only major health charity supporting basic research on the causes of premature labor, so we're extremely fortunate to receive this grant," Dr. Condon said.

The March of Dimes calls on the federal government to fully fund the PREEMIE Act of 2006, which expands federal research on preterm labor and delivery, and the care and treatment, and outcomes of preterm and low birthweight infants, Dr. Howse said.

In December 2008, the March of Dimes and the Burroughs Wellcome Trust co-sponsored "Preventing Prematurity: Establishing a Network for Innovation and Discovery," a meeting that brought together about 200 researchers from around the world to establish new partnerships on the problem of preterm birth and inspire other scientists to pursue studies in this area so crucial to maternal and infant health.

Preterm birth (before 37 completed weeks gestation) is a leading cause of infant death in the United States. Babies who survive an early birth often face serious and sometimes lifelong health problems, including breathing problems, jaundice, developmental delays, vision loss and cerebral palsy. More than 543,000 babies are born too soon each year and recent federal statistics show that the nation's preterm birth rate has risen to 12.8 percent -- a 36 percent increase since the early 1980s.

The 2009 PRI grant recipients are:

  • Jennifer C. Condon, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Cell Biology and Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Magee-Women's Research Institute, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA;
  • Michal Elovitz, MD, assistant professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA;
  • Sarah Katherine England, PhD, associate professor, Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA;
  • Ramkumar Menon, MS, PhD, associate research professor, Department of Epidemiology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA;
  • Deborah McColl Money, BSc, MD, FRCSC, associate professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC;
  • James Frederick Padbury, MD, professor and vice chair for Research, Department of Pediatrics, Brown University, Providence, RI;
  • Kristina M. Adams Waldorf, MD, assistant professor, Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA.


Contact: Elizabeth Lynch
March of Dimes Foundation

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