- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

CHICAGO (AP) - Studying how discrimination and poverty might alter gene regulation and lead to premature births will be a major focus for a new research center launched Tuesday in Chicago.

Bringing together scientists at three medical institutions, the new March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center will try to identify the gene functions responsible for ensuring a pregnancy continues to full term and how prolonged stress may affect those functions.

“These scientists will be working together in a highly collaborative way, sharing information in real time, meeting on a regular basis,” said March of Dimes President Jennifer L. Howse. “The researchers will be using existing genetic material to put together a genetic map that explains certain patterns that lead to premature birth.”

The project will combine work from researchers at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina.

Carole Ober of the University of Chicago is the primary investigator. March of Dimes is contributing $10 million over five years and the research center will contribute an additional $10 million.

Premature birth is the leading cause of newborn death in the United States. Preterm birth rates have declined, but racial gaps remain. Among black women, the rate of preterm birth is 16.5 percent, compared to 10.3 percent among white women.

Prior research has shown that social disadvantages can cause the release of stress hormones that set the stage for disease. The Chicago research center will explore how that relates to gene functions and prematurity.

“The March of Dimes intends to end prematurity,” Howse said. Research can lead to “better diagnostics so at-risk pregnancies can be identified earlier.”

The Chicago-based center is the fifth prematurity research center supported by March of Dimes. The first opened in 2011 at Stanford University School of Medicine in California. Others are in Ohio, Missouri and Pennsylvania.

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