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Wayne State cell research may lower risk of early birth

Kim Kozlowski

Detroit — Cells once thought to be rare in a pregnant woman’s uterine lining play a powerful role in suppressing preterm births and could dramatically reduce the number of babies born too soon, according to groundbreaking research by Wayne State University scientists.

The findings showed a pregnant woman has a specific type of immune cells — B lymphocytes — that are, in fact, not rare and make antibodies to help protect against infections — one of the most common triggers of preterm births. But scientists and clinicians long thought these cells were unimportant in pregnancy, so no one paid attention to them, said Wayne State assistant professor Kang Chen, who made the discovery.

Now, Chen and his team have shown that not only are these B cells present in a mother’s uterus during late pregnancy, the cell’s receptors protect the mother from having her baby preterm, or before 37 weeks, by detecting any stress or infection in the uterine tissues and fighting back.

The scientists showed pregnant women who delivered a baby prematurely had the B cells but the cells lacked receptors that detect the stress or the ability to fight back. But the researchers also found a protein that supplemented the B cells lacking receptors and discovered the protein helped prevent preterm birth in mice models with an infection. They will test larger animals next and also try to determine why some B cells lack receptors.

“This is promising,” Chen said. “If this therapy is proven, it could dramatically reduce the incidence of preterm birth.”

The findings were published online this month and in the upcoming January edition of Nature Medicine, a premier biomedical journal.

They were hailed by the March of Dimes, the leading nonprofit organization for pregnancy and baby health, which recently made preterm births the top research priority.

“Premature birth is a complex health challenge, which is both heart wrenching and costly,” said Stacey Stewart, president of the March of Dimes Foundation. “As the leading organization for the health of mothers and babies, March of Dimes welcomes promising research to address this critical issue."

While the discovery still needs several years to go through clinical trials before it translates into medicine, it comes as a Detroit News investigation last year found more babies are born prematurely in Detroit than any other major city and is a leading killers of Detroit’s infants.

One of the most vexing problems in maternal and infant health, preterm births affect 1 in 10 U.S. pregnancies, disproportionately more among African-American women (13 percent) than white women (9 percent), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is also a global problem with most preterm births occurring in Africa and South Asia. The U.S. ranks sixth globally, according to the World Health Organization.

Infants who are born too early face a host of problems — their organs, and immune and neurological systems aren’t fully developed — putting the infants at risk of numerous problems, such as collapsed lungs and brain hemorrhages, intellectual and developmental disabilities and death.

Besides the human toll, prematurity also comes with medical and societal costs of more than $26 billion annually, according to the March of Dimes.

“Babies should come out at the right time,” Chen said. “If things are wrong at the beginning, it can affect their entire lives.”

Why babies arrive too soon is a complex issue in pregnancy, Chen said, but triggers that contribute include stress, hormonal defects and mothers with short cervixes — for which fellow Wayne State University researchers announced a breakthrough treatment to address in 2011.

But infection is perhaps one of the most common reasons explaining preterm birth, Chen said, affecting between 30-40 percent of mothers, whereas a short cervix impacts pregnant women far less.

A national prematurity expert hailed the new discovery by Chen, saying it identifies an important cell population.

“It could be utilized to reduce the risk for pregnancies to end too early,” said Dr. Louis Muglia, director of the Center for Prevention of Preterm Birth at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “It will serve as a novel target for both biomarker development and therapy.”

Besides Wayne State, Chen’s collaborators included scientists and clinicians from Beaumont Hospital Dearborn, Yale University, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Washington University in St. Louis and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.