Public Release: 

UTHealth research looks at nanotechnology to help prevent preterm birth

Findings presented at SMFM annual meeting

University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

HOUSTON - (Feb. 4, 2016) - Using nanoparticles to engineer a special drug, a team of researchers from McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) has demonstrated in pre-clinical trials a new way to both reduce preterm birth and avoid the risks of medication in pregnancy to unborn babies.

Jerrie S. Refuerzo, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at McGovern Medical School, will present the findings today during the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine's (SMFM) 36th Annual Meeting - The Pregnancy Meeting™ in Atlanta. Refuerzo is also chair of Quality for Obstetrics and Gynecology/Women's Services at Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital.

Existing tocolytic (anti-contraction or labor-repressant) medications, such as indomethacin, that are used to treat preterm labor can cross the placental barrier and cause heart defects or other problems in the fetus.

Refuerzo collaborated with Monica Longo, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at McGovern Medical School, and Biana Godin, Ph.D., M.Sc.Pharm., assistant professor at Houston Methodist Research Institute. The team bioengineered an innovative microscopic nanoparticle of indomethacin aimed at reaching the pregnant uterus but not crossing the placenta to the fetus. This targeted liposomal indomethacin, called LIPINDORA, was coated with an oxytocin receptor antagonist to make it bind to uterine tissue.

Refuerzo and her team, which also includes McGovern Medical School's research assistant Alejandra Elder Ontiveros and laboratory manager Nataliya Buleyeva, as well as Methodist's Fransisca Leonard, are being honored by the March of Dimes during the conference. Joe Leigh Simpson, M.D., senior vice president for research and global programs, will present Refuerzo with the March of Dimes award for Best Abstract in Prematurity at the meeting. This marks the 13th year that the March of Dimes award has been presented.

LIPINDORA was given to near-term pregnant mice and the researchers found that the treated mice were significantly less likely than controls to have preterm uterine contractions or to deliver prematurely.

Preterm birth (birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy) is the No. 1 killer of babies in the United States. About 380,000 babies are born too soon each year in this country, and those who survive an early birth often face an increased risk of a lifetime of health challenges such as breathing problems, cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities. Even babies born just a few weeks early have higher rates of hospitalization and illness than full-term infants.

Refuerzo said the team currently is conducting tests of LIPINDORA's effectiveness in human uterine tissue donated from C-sections. They're looking for biomarkers to indicate that the tissue has an anti-contraction response to the drug. If successful, they hope to begin a Phase I human clinical trial of the drug within the next few years.

Two other McGovern Medical School faculty at the conference are presenting research findings, including a regenerative patch that can be used for in utero surgery and rates of patient satisfaction among postpartum women.

Saul Snowise, M.D., a UTHealth fetal interventional fellow at The Fetal Center at Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital, compared a patch made from human umbilical cord to one made from biocellulose film in an animal model for in utero repair of spina bifida. The umbilical cord patch showed promising results in cell development and decreased inflammation. Snowise will present the findings on Friday.

Robyn P. Roberts, M.D., a maternal-fetal medicine fellow instructor at McGovern Medical School, studied patient satisfaction in postpartum women. She found that postpartum women who received delayed physician rounding (after 8 a.m.) were more satisfied with physician communication and overall hospital experience without prolonging their hospital stay for time of discharge. She will present her research on Saturday.

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- The March of Dimes and Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine contributed to this press release

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