Dr. Carole R. Mendelson, Professor of Biochemistry and Obstetrics and Gynecology and Director of the North Texas March of Dimes Birth Defects Center, and Dr. Mala Mahendroo, Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, both at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, are two of the five researchers in the U.S. and Canada who received grants from the March of Dimes Foundation to advance their work in prevention of premature birth. The grants awarded to the UT Southwestern researchers total $600,000.
Affecting about one out of nine babies born annually in the U.S., premature birth is the leading cause of newborn death. Dr. Mendelson is identifying proteins and lipids produced by the maturing fetal lungs that enhance contractility of the mother’s uterus and signal that the baby is ready to be born. A previous study from her laboratory found that the major lung surfactant protein, surfactant protein-A, acts as a hormonal signal for labor. Ongoing studies funded by the March of Dimes grant explore the regulation and roles of unique surfactant lipids as signals for the initiation of labor.
Dr. Mendelson, who chairs the Reproductive Scientist Development Program Selection Committee for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health, says the March of Dimes Foundation has been “an amazing supporter” of research on preterm birth and birth defects. “This has been incredibly important at a time when National Institutes of Health funding of basic research in female reproductive biology has been declining,” she adds.
A member of the Cecil H. and Ida Green Center for Reproductive Biology Sciences , Dr. Mahendroo is working to understand cervical changes and how they trigger labor. She is working to identify key steps in normal cervical ripening, as well as distinct molecular pathways that drive infection-mediated cervical ripening.
According to Dr. Mahendroo, cervical changes precede the onset of preterm birth, which makes it critical for the development of clinical tools for early detection of preterm birth risk, as well as for preventive therapies, to have a better understanding of the diverse pathways that achieve cervical remodeling. “The March of Dimes has been instrumental in support of research to advance understanding of term and preterm birth and I am greatly appreciative of their support for our work,” she said.
The grants are part of the 2014 March of Dimes Prematurity Research Initiative (PRI), which is seeking to understand the causes of premature birth with the goal of identifying women at risk of preterm labor and developing new treatments to prevent it. The selected researchers are investigating what role genetic variations, infection, inflammation, fetal lung development, and changes in cervical ripening may play in triggering preterm labor.
According to the Institutes of Medicine, more than 450,000 babies are born too soon each year in the U.S., which costs more than $26 billion annually. Babies who survive an early birth are at an increased risk for breathing problems, cerebral palsy, intellectual and developmental disabilities, vision and hearing loss, and other lifelong health problems. U.S. preterm births dropped to an 11.5 percent rate in 2012, the lowest in 15 years, but still above the March of Dimes goal of 9.6 percent.
“Prevention is the way to save babies from the death and disability caused by preterm birth,” said Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, president of the March of Dimes. “Research is the key that will provide new insights into the many unknown causes of preterm labor, and help doctors recognize the women and babies most at risk.”
With more than 100 faculty members, UT Southwestern’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology is one of the largest in the United States. UT Southwestern trains about one out of every 50 Ob/Gyn residents in the U.S. UT Southwestern’s Ob/Gyn clinical care is nationally recognized by U.S. News & World Report’s 2013-2014 annual report on the nation’s best hospitals, and its research efforts include three NIH Multi-Center Network Grants.