$20 million grant from March of Dimes for research center on premature birth

- By Erin Digitale

Lucile Packard Children's Hospital David Stevenson

Neonatologist David Stevenson is the principal investigator for a new center that will research ways to better predict and prevent preterm births. The new center is a joint venture of the March of Dimes and the School of Medicine.

A $20 million grant from the March of Dimes will fund a new School of Medicine research center, a collaborative effort between the two organizations that will be dedicated to understanding and preventing preterm birth.

Infants born more than three weeks early are at risk for lifelong health problems, such as cerebral palsy, developmental delays and impaired vision and hearing. Yet no one understands how to avert spontaneous preterm births. Preterm births occur in 12 percent of pregnancies, with a disproportionate effect on disadvantaged populations.

The new center, to be called the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Stanford University School of Medicine, will bring together experts from a variety of disciplines to develop new approaches toward studying and preventing preterm birth. The March of Dimes has committed $2 million per year for 10 years to finance the center, which will be formally launched March 30.

“The rate of preterm delivery is increasing,” said David Stevenson, MD, principal investigator of the new center. “There’s a clear need for new research that addresses this challenging public health problem.” Stevenson is vice dean of the School of Medicine and director of the Johnson Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Services at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. Co-principal investigators of the new center are Paul Wise, MD, professor of pediatrics and of health research & policy, and Gary Shaw, DrPH, research professor of neonatology. The March of Dimes is a charitable foundation dedicated to preventing birth defects and infant mortality.

The new center has four goals: understanding the pathways that lead to preterm birth; predicting which women are at risk of delivering early; translating this research into clinical interventions and policy changes to prevent preterm delivery; and reducing the social disparities that contribute to preterm birth.

The scientific advisory committee — which includes 17 researchers drawn from fields such as obstetrics, biomedical informatics, statistics, sociology, microbiology, public health, nutrition and genetics — plans to design research projects that draw from start to finish on the expertise of multiple fields. Center research projects will employ several state and national data sets, including data collected by the California Perinatal Quality Care Collaborative and the U.S. Standard Certificates of Live Birth Dataset. The advantage of using these comprehensive data sets is that they survey large populations, giving researchers a more nuanced view than they can obtain by conducting small studies at individual hospitals.

The center will fund several inaugural research areas, with others to be added in the future. Richard Mahoney, PhD, director of the robotics program, engineering & systems division at SRI International, is leading a team using artificial intelligence theory to study the space/time patterns of preterm birth. Atul Butte, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics in systems medicine, is using bioinformatics to identify genes and protein biomarkers that could signal impending prematurity. David Relman, MD, professor of infectious diseases and of microbiology and immunology, leads an effort tocharacterize the contribution of the maternal microbiome to preterm birth. Julie Baker, PhD, associate professor of genetics and of obstetrics and gynecology, is studying how placental gene expression causes problems with the placenta that contribute to preterm birth.

“We are confident that this long-term collaboration between Stanford and the March of Dimes will ultimately make a big difference to help prevent preterm delivery and improve neonates’ health,” Stevenson said.

“This is the kind of research that Stanford faculty are uniquely qualified to carry out,” Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, said in an announcement about the new center. “This program is directed at generating and testing new hypotheses and investigational strategies through a highly innovative, collaborative, transdisciplinary structure that integrates and utilizes powerful new informatics capabilities with an unprecedented array of ethnically-diverse, biologic, clinical and environmental population-based datasets.”

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

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