Premature birth is a complex problem with no single solution. Each year, about 15 million babies worldwide are born prematurely, and more than one million of them will die. Over 50 percent of the time, the cause of premature birth is not known. However, scientists have always believed that genetic factors play a role. A new study led by the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center-Ohio Collaborative, is the first to provide strong information as to what some of those genetic factors are. The team identified six genes that influence the length of pregnancy and the timing of birth. The findings were published Sept. 6 in the New England Journal of Medicine.
This international team of researchers looked at the DNA of 50,000 pregnant women from around the world. The identification of these six gene regions allowed scientists to learn that:
- The cells within the lining of the uterus play a larger-than-suspected role in the length of pregnancy.
- Low levels of selenium—a common dietary mineral found in some nuts, certain green vegetables, liver and other meats—might affect the risk of preterm birth. Future studies will look at selenium levels in pregnant women who live in areas with low selenium in their diet or soil.
The six genes that have been identified can now be studied in more detail. The population of women in this study was mostly from Europe. Researchers are already trying to determine if these gene associations are the same for women from Africa and Asia.
Louis Muglia, MD, PhD, co-director of the Perinatal Institute at Cincinnati Children’s and principal investigator of the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center–Ohio Collaborative stated, “This is just the beginning of the journey, but we think it leads to an exciting horizon where we can really make a difference in human pregnancy.”
The March of Dimes believes that these new findings will lead to new diagnostic tests, medications, improved dietary supplements or other changes that could help more women have full-term pregnancies and give more babies a healthy start in life.