In its ongoing effort to predict and prevent premature birth, the March of Dimes announced support for the innovative research of eight scientists with combined grant awards of $3 million. One of the eight grants was awarded to Dr. Iain Buxton, professor of pharmacology and of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Nevada School of Medicine.
Buxton's goal is to explore the regulation and functions of two similar protein structures (potassium channels) that are embedded in the surface of uterine muscle cells and that help control cellular potassium levels, which in turn affect muscle contractility.
If malfunctions of one or both channels prove to be linked to preterm labor, this fact may enable more reliable prediction of preterm deliveries, so premature babies can be born with optimal management. Such findings could also target the channels for design of new drugs to prevent or stop preterm labor.
"These grants demonstrate the increasing investment of the March of Dimes in research to discover etiology of preterm labor," said Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, president of the March of Dimes. "The number of premature births has risen to more than 500,000 babies each year. New research is critical if we are to end this epidemic."
More than a half million babies are born too soon each year and the preterm birth rate has increased 30 percent since 1981, the first year the government began tracking premature birth rates. While there are several factors that can help predict the risk of preterm birth, there is no known cause for half the cases of premature birth.
"We're proud to play a hands-on role in searching for the answers to prematurity by having one of the Prematurity Research Initiative grants here in Nevada," said Dr. Nathan Slotnick, March of Dimes Nevada Chapter Prematurity Chair. "The March of Dimes Nevada Chapter fully supports the efforts of Dr. Buxton and we're confident that in the future, mothers and babies will benefit from his research," he added.
The third annual Prematurity Research Initiative grants were awarded to eight scientists; two from Illinois, and one each from Colorado, Kentucky, Iowa, Nevada, Vermont, and Washington state. The grants are awarded to the scientists for a three-year period.
Five of the research projects focus on the role a woman's immune and inflammatory responses to infections may play in triggering labor. By moderating or suppressing inflammatory responses, it may be possible to prevent more premature births, which are the leading cause of newborn death in the United States.
One project explores the possibility that prematurity can result from long-time disturbances of the circadian clock that times daily cycles, such as sleep/wake periods and levels of various hormones. Such disturbances might involve environmental factors, or abnormal function of certain genes, such as the one called "clock".
Another project uses a unique Danish database to search for genetic and environmental factors that increase women's risk of preterm labor and delivery. And one focuses on whether and how certain abnormalities of potassium balance in uterine muscle cells may lead to preterm contractions and delivery.
The March of Dimes is a national voluntary health agency whose mission is to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality.
Founded in 1938, the March of Dimes funds programs of research, community services, education, and advocacy to save babies and in 2003 launched a campaign to address the increasing rate of premature birth. For more information, visit the March of Dimes website or its Spanish language website.