Closing in on prematurity one molecular-sized baby step at a time

Solving the puzzle of unacceptably high prematurity rates in the United States isn’t just a matter of finding the right pieces and fitting them together. It can also require doing something extraordinary before even knowing where to look.

Experts say the compatible puzzle pieces are in data that detail the vital, delicate and symbiotic relationship between an expectant mother and her baby.

A growing library of evidence already exists linking poor lifestyle choices (smoking and poor nutrition while pregnant, etc.), low educational levels and poverty to higher risk levels for premature birth. Beyond that already known in unfortunate abundance, is the realm of the unknown. This is where so many of the critically important answers are hiding in places the naked eye can’t see.

Although doctors and scientists know very little about the biological processes that trigger childbirth, a new study from the Cincinnati Children’s Perinatal Institute is providing one of the first genetic clues. Scientists here are pointing to a gene identified officially as p53 – sometimes referred to as “The Guardian Angel Gene.” Its normal role is to help protect genetic stability in the body’s biological processes and act as a tumor suppressor if something goes haywire.

A scientific team lead by Sudhansu K. Dey, PhD, studied how the presence and absence of p53 in the uteri of pregnant mice affected their pregnancies. They discovered that p53 deficiency set off a chain of biological interactions that led to the mice giving premature birth and, in over half of the mice, early death of offspring.

This molecular step forward may come from a world of microscopic reality, but it lights a very visible path for future studies and the quest for pieces of the puzzle.

Nick Miller

About the Author: Nick Miller

Nick is the science writer at Cincinnati Children’s and a former journalist. A newspaper reporter and editor for 20 years, Miller developed a knack for writing about cops, criminals, courts, the environment, and – of all things – decommissioning nuclear weapons plants. Miller left journalism to become a media relations and communications manager in the aviation industry. The career change was just in time for him to personally experience one of the worst industry downturns in the history of powered flight. His focus today is uncovering and telling stories about the amazing science coming out of the research laboratories of Cincinnati Children’s. He thinks the world should know more about the work of the medical center’s dedicated scientists – people who spend countless hours pursuing the discoveries of today, which may become the cures of tomorrow. When not haunting the halls of the research foundation, Nick spends his time preserving historic buildings and neighborhoods. He also works with local organizations trying to build bicycle/pedestrian trails, preserve green space and promote active lifestyles

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