Public Release: 

Innovative research probing causes of preterm birth funded by the March of Dimes

Scientists seek new ways to predict and prevent preterm birth

March of Dimes Foundation

White Plains, N.Y., June 23 -- Scientists from four states are aiming to improve understanding of the biology of labor and delivery and discover what triggers the onset of preterm labor, the March of Dimes announced today. What they learn could advance development of novel drugs and other treatments to help prevent preterm birth.

These five scientists, who were awarded 2015 March of Dimes Prematurity Research Initiative (PRI) grants, are looking for answers in the placental microbiome, in genes and other factors that control cervical ripening, in the workings of uterine muscle cells, and in the amniotic sac (bag of waters) that surrounds the baby.

Premature birth is the leading cause of newborn death. Worldwide, more than one million children die each year due to complications of premature birth. Babies who survive an early birth often face lifetime health challenges, such as vision and breathing problems, cerebral palsy, and learning disabilities. In 2013, one out 10 babies in the U.S. was born preterm and the U.S. rate exceeded that of most other high-resource countries.

"The causes of about half of all preterm births are unknown. Research aimed at identifying the unknown causes of preterm birth is crucial for development of effective treatments to prevent premature births," says Dr. Jennifer Howse, president of the March of Dimes. "Prevention is the way to save babies from the death and disability caused by preterm birth."

Since 2004, the March of Dimes has committed more than $28 million to the PRI grants. The grants are one of several March of Dimes grant programs available to researchers.

The 2015 PRI grantees include:

  • Kjersti Aagaard, M.D., Ph.D., of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, is using the latest technology to identify placental factors, including gene and metabolite variations alongside changes in placental microbes (microbiome), which may contribute to or better predict preterm birth.
  • Sarah K. England, Ph.D., of Washington University School in St. Louis, is studying the role of a newly discovered channel (tiny opening) in the membrane of uterine muscle cells in initiating uterine contractions. Currently, the triggers of the onset of labor at or before term are unknown.
  • Emmet Hirsch, M.D., of NorthShore University HealthSystem, University of Chicago System in Evanston, Illinois, is investigating the role of autophagy -- a process used by cells to eliminate damaged parts and dispose of bacteria and viruses -- in maintaining a healthy pregnancy, and how disruptions may contribute to premature birth.
  • John J. Moore, M.D., of Case Western Reserve University and MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, is working to understand what causes weakening of the amniotic sac (bag of waters) and preterm premature rupture of the membranes (PPROM). PPROM contributes to about 40 percent of preterm births.
  • Ruth Ann Word, M.D., of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, is trying to determine how body chemicals called prostaglandins control cervical ripening. She also aims to find out if certain drugs block the action of these chemicals in the cervix and help prevent preterm birth.


The March of Dimes is the leading nonprofit organization for pregnancy and baby health. For more than 75 years, moms and babies have benefited from March of Dimes research, education, vaccines, and breakthroughs. Find out how you can help raise funds to prevent premature birth and birth defects by walking in March for Babies at Find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.


Todd P. Dezen, (914) 997-4608,
Elizabeth Lynch, (914) 997-4286,

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