September 17, 2012 at 1:00 am

WSU fights to keep $167M perinatology grant

Melissa O’Brien of St. Clair Shores, right, who recently had a cervical-length screening with normal results, has her blood pressure checked by Patrice Holiness at Hutzel Women’s Health Specialists in Warren. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

For years Dr. Ivana Vettraino ordered some pregnant women to stay in the hospital and endure weeks in bed to avoid delivering their baby prematurely.

But Vettraino and her colleagues recently began telling certain patients to skip the bed rest after groundbreaking prematurity prevention was discovered last year by federal and Wayne State University researchers.

"It is not often that you have research done well enough that you can say, 'Wow! This is something we should apply to our patients right away,'" said Vettraino, director of maternal fetal medicine at Hurley Medical Center in Flint. "Preterm delivery is the third-highest cause of (infant death). If there is anything we can do to decrease that risk that causes little to no harm … then we should use it."

The research emerged from the Perinatology Research Branch — housed in Detroit at Hutzel Women's Hospital with a 10-year $167 million National Institutes of Health contract.

But the contract is expiring next month for the PRB, which produces groundbreaking research while providing care for more than 20,000 local women and adding an estimated $35 million to the local economy. WSU submitted an application last month to land the contract again so that it can continue to offer health, economic and educational opportunities to the region, and many are crossing their fingers that it will be granted to the university again. An announcement is expected around Nov. 1.

Advocates push for PRB

If WSU wins the contract, the PRB's cumulative economic activity would exceed $347 million, according to the Anderson Economic Group.

Others say the renewal would continue to put Michigan in the forefront of the fight to reduce prematurity, which disproportionately affects African-American women and often includes immeasurable human costs such as cerebral palsy, developmental delays and hearing impairment. Prematurity is also one of the leading causes of infant death.

That's why advocates say it's critical the branch stay in Detroit.

"The alarmingly high infant mortality rate of our city combined with the rich array of resources and technology available at the WSU/DMC campus make Detroit an ideal locale for the Perinatology Research Branch," said Frank D'Angelo, executive director of the March of Dimes Metropolitan Detroit. "Furthermore, the groundbreaking research conducted at the PRB has a global impact that positions Detroit as an international player in the fight for healthy moms and babies."

Some lawmakers also are lobbying to keep the PRB in Detroit

"I strongly support Wayne State's application to retain this branch of NIH in southeast Michigan, which has improved the health of so many mothers and infants in the region," said U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit.

The PRB is the only clinical branch in the NIH to focus on problems in pregnancy. It is one of eight branches outside the NIH's Bethesda, Md., campus.

Congress urged an establishment of the branch in 1991 for research "underfunded and overlooked" for too long, according to NIH documents outlining the PRB's history.

When WSU first applied in 2001, it was up against Yale University and two others.

It's unclear if WSU is facing stiffer competition this time around. And re-winning the contract is not guaranteed.

"In the competitive process we are out to select the contractor who can best meet our requirements," said Diane Frasier, director of the NIH's Office of Acquisition and Logistics Management and head of contracting activity. "Sometimes that may be the incumbent but sometimes it can be a new competitor."

Research is well-received

The PRB's most high-profile research was unveiled last year. It recommended routine screenings of pregnant women for short cervixes, a risk factor for women to deliver their babies before 37 weeks of gestation, and prescribing a progesterone gel, if needed.

It offered simple, low-cost and promising options for reducing premature births that it has adopted as a statewide strategy for reducing Michigan's infant mortality rate, among the 10 worst in the nation. Local clinicians, hospitals and insurers, and those in other states, also are beginning to embrace the research and make it a standard of care, according to WSU officials.

For women like Mindy Rozell, the PRB's research is personal.

Rozell, 25, has had three miscarriages and was recently prescribed progesterone to use during her pregnancy so she can get closer to her due date.

"Ever since I have been on it, it has put me a little more at ease," said Rozell, who is staying with family in Burton as she gets treatment at Hurley Medical Center. "So far, it's been proving to be effective."

Besides the translational research that emerged on prematurity, the PRB also has contributed breakthrough research on other pregnancy complications and training. For instance, PRB researchers earlier this year published a study showing cerebral palsy symptoms were reversed at birth in rabbits by using an anti-inflammatory drug and a nanodevice. Last week, the PRB hosted a training of advocacy representatives from across the country to further curb sudden infant death syndrome.

The scope and depth of the work at the PRB can only help Michigan, and that's why many are hoping the NIH will award the contract to WSU again.

"The PRB is the international groundbreaking research facility," said Doug Skrzyniarz, senior director of external affairs for the WSU School of Medicine. "Having the PRB in Michigan is a privilege, and it's a privilege we should leverage as much as possible."

(313) 222-2024