Wayne State University leads groundbreaking research on preterm birth
Premature birth – birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy – affects up to 1 in every 6 births in the United States and many other countries. It is the #1 cause of infant death and long-term illnesses, and imposes heavy social and economic burdens. In a recent breakthrough published in the premier biomedical research journal Nature Medicine, a team led by Assistant Professor Kang Chen, Ph.D., discovered the critical function of a type of mother’s immune cells — B lymphocytes — in resisting preterm birth caused by infection and inflammation. B lymphocytes make antibodies to defend the body against infections, but scientists and clinicians have always thought these cells are rare or absent in the uterine lining and not important for pregnancy. The Chen lab discovered that in late pregnancy, mothers’ B lymphocytes not only reside in the uterine lining, but also detect inflammation and uterine stress, which are major causes of preterm birth, and in turn, produce molecules — including one called PIBF1 — to suppress premature birth. “This study not only reveals the long-neglected function of B lymphocytes in promoting healthy pregnancy, but also supports therapeutic approaches of using B lymphocyte-derived molecules — such as PIBF1 — to prevent or treat preterm birth,” said Dr. Chen, whose team has performed proof-of-concept and efficacy studies in animal models, and with the help of the Wayne State University’s Technology Commercialization Office, patented this potential therapeutic approach. Why babies arrive too soon is a complex issue, and triggers can include infection, stress, hormonal defects and mothers having short cervixes. However, infection is perhaps one of the most common reasons explaining preterm birth, affecting between 30-40 percent of mothers, whereas a short cervix impacts pregnant women far less. This breakthrough is hailed by mainstream media across the world. The study was supported by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Wayne State University Perinatal Initiative and Office of the Vice President for Research.