A decade of advances in prematurity research at Stanford


Babies who are born prematurely, arriving three or more weeks early, face a variety of health risks. Although decades of clinical research have improved doctors’ ability to prevent and treat many of these complications — which can include problems with breathing, digestion, vision, hearing, cognition and development — knowledge of why premature births happen has lagged.

But Stanford physicians and scientists are closing the knowledge gap. A new package of stories on the Stanford University home page highlights many of their discoveries over the last decade, including gaining new insights into the role of the immune system in “keeping time” in pregnancy; understanding how the microbes in a pregnant woman’s body may influence her risk of early delivery; and tracking many different types of prematurity risk factors such as genes, infections, and a maternal history of PTSD, to name just a few. Stanford scientists have even developed a test that can use a small amount of mom’s blood to predict which babies may arrive early.

At the same time, our care teams at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford have been improving care for premature babies and figuring out how to help their families. Describing one Stanford study, Packard Children’s neonatologist Henry Lee, MD, explained why strong scientific evidence is so important to parents of preemies:

“When I talk with these parents, I’m often describing risks and potential complications for their baby,” he said. “It helps to be able to talk not just about risks but also about proven therapies — to say, ‘Here is a therapy that we have found to be very beneficial.’”

More is still to come. For instance, the prematurity blood test relies on tracking signals from large groups of genes in the mother, fetus and placenta. Stanford scientists hope to track down exactly what those genes are doing, with the ultimate goal of identifying targets for drugs that could one day delay premature birth.

Photo by Luma Pimentel on Unsplash


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