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Researchers Going “Back to Basics” to Try and Stop Preterm Birth

preterm birth

The “mechanics of pregnancy” hardly seems like a conversation starter.  But a collaboration between a mechanical engineer and an OB/GYN physician hopes to provide answers to some of the basic unknowns about pregnancy and childbirth—like, what triggers labor?

For the past three years, the United States has suffered a reversal of fortune when it comes to preventing preterm birth.  When a child is born prior to 37 weeks of pregnancy, the infant Is considered preterm.  Preterm babies often have low birthweight and the earlier the birth, the greater the chances of a variety of challenges including;

  • Developmental or behavioral delays
  • Feeding or breathing troubles
  • Hearing and vision issues
  • Cerebral palsy or chronic health conditions

Since 2015, the rate of preterm birth in this country has increased.  According to the March of Dimes, more than 380,000 babies are born prematurely each year and face a challenge simply surviving until their first birthday.  The upward trend in premature births means between 2004 and 2018, there were approximately 27,000 more babies born prematurely than in previous years.  According to a recent Stanford study, prematurity is the most prevalent cause of death around the world of children under age five.

In the United States, there are several drivers of the increase in premature births, including the economics of zip code, social conditions, poverty, poor or unequal access to health care, increased maternal age, ethnicity, and other factors.

To help women avoid or better manage preterm birth, two researchers are going back to basics to uncover new knowledge about pregnancy and childbirth.  Greater insight into the anatomy of labor and delivery can also help physicians and labor teams create best practices for treating pregnant patients.

Understanding the physiology of pregnancy

Dr. Joy-Sarah Vink is co-director of the Preterm Birth Prevention Center at Columbia University Medical
Center.  Kristin Myers is a mechanical engineer.  Together they are working to understand some of the unanswered questions about pregnancy and preterm birth.

In her research, Dr. Vink collects cervical tissue samples, ultrasound measurements, and other data throughout the stages of pregnancy.  Ms. Myers studies the tissue changes that occur during pregnancy in an effort to uncover how cervical tissue responds to pregnancy.  Ms. Myers found that the cervix is composed of more muscle tissue than originally thought.  Their findings are contributing to a computational model which encodes estimates of the pressure of pregnancy on the cervix, the stretchy nature of the uterus, and how much impact the kick of a baby in-utero has on the whole system.

The pair hopes that their research into the basics of pregnancy and labor will lead to insights that help prevent preterm birth—and give babies at risk of preterm birth a greater chance at a healthy future.

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