What do artificial intelligence, mathematics and engineering have to do with premature birth? More than you might think, according to the new multidisciplinary preterm research center at Stanford University.
“For a number of years, we’ve been talking about the intractability of the problem of preterm birth,” says Dr. Gary Shaw, co-principal investigator of the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center and a professor of pediatrics at Stanford. “It’s exactly the kind of problem that can be solved though a transdisciplinary approach. We’re getting all these different people to focus on the complex, perplexing problem of preterm birth.”
Thursday marks the first-ever World Prematurity Day, a collaboration between the March of Dimes and organizations in Europe, Africa and Australia that educate about preterm birth. Advocacy groups are asking people to join a Facebook campaign today to help to raise awareness of the problem. More than 13 million babies are born too early each year, and 1 million die before they turn 1.
But figuring out what causes babies to arrive ahead of schedule requires much more than social media. The March of Dimes helped launch the Stanford center in March with a $2 million gift, and it hopes to fund similar centers in the future. “We need to have bold, innovative, breakthrough research,” says Dr. Jennifer Howse, president of the March of Dimes.
For years, researchers have been trying to suss out why babies arrive too soon. They’ve had some success: they know, for example, that maternal smoking, lack of prenatal care and elective deliveries before 39 weeks contribute to the problem. They also know that progesterone shots can help some women who have previously delivered preterm.
But nearly half the time, doctors have no idea why each year more than 500,000 U.S. babies don’t stay put until their due date. Earlier this month, the March of Dimes released its annual preterm birth “report card,” awarding the U.S. a C. The number of babies born early has dropped in most states, but preterm birth remains the leading cause of newborn death in the U.S., which is why frustrated experts have decided it’s time for a different approach.
Circle back to those mathematicians and engineers. At the prematurity research center, they, along with other specialists from disparate backgrounds, are now thinking about prematurity in radically different ways. Artificial intelligence specialists, for example, will use detailed computer algorithms that they’ve previously used to look at fraud detection and battlefield communications to detect patterns of preterm birth and figure out whether they might be affected by factors such as weather and geography. Other researchers are looking at the interplay between genetics and environment, drilling down into pesticides, toxins, air and water quality. They’re considering the placenta’s role. And they’re investigating the microbiome, other bacterial life forms that survive on our bodies and may result in infection.
“This is not to say that a lot of good work hasn’t gone on in the past, but what we’ve been doing isn’t enough,” says Shaw. “We haven’t tackled the problem in the way we need to, so now we’re trying to do that with people who have never even thought about preterm birth.”
Meanwhile, people who have spent years thinking about the subject will make their voices heard on Thursday. In the U.S., the March of Dimes is lobbying to renew the federal PREMIE act, which would bolster research into the causes of prematurity. In Australia, there’s an evening gala. Nigeria is holding a World Prematurity Day concert. “Prematurity is not just a problem in the U.S.,” says Howse. “It’s a problem in every country, and we need to join together to call attention to it.”