WHITE PLAINS, N.Y., AUGUST 21, 2006 New research is uncovering genetic links that may help explain some of the mystifying premature births among women who start pregnancy with no known risk factors.
Working separately, Dr. Jerome F. Strauss III, dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Medicine, and Dr. Xiaobin Wang, at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, found two different inherited traits that can help predict the risk of premature birth. The March of Dimes supported both researchers' work through its Prematurity Research grants, which total more than $4 million.
More than a half million babies are born too soon each year and the preterm birth rate has increased more than 30 percent since 1981. Babies who do survive face risks of lifelong challenges of cerebral palsy, mental retardation, chronic lung disease, and vision and hearing loss, as well as other developmental problems.
While there are several factors that can help predict the risk of preterm birth, there is no known cause for half the cases, leading researchers to focus on inherited genetic makers.
A recent Institute of Medicine report documented the growing problem of premature birth and outlined the need for expanded research to understand the roles of genetic susceptibility and gene-environment interactions in preterm birth. Experts believe that understanding these factors could lead to major improvements in the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of preterm birth.
Dr. Strauss found that African American babies are three times more likely than babies of European descent to have genetic variation of the SERPINH1 gene that caused it to produce a reduced amount of the protein, collagen, which may lead to weakened fetal membranes, also called the "bag of waters." Because the membranes are weakened, there is an increased chance of premature rupture of the membranes and premature birth.