Researchers at Vanderbilt University, Washington University and the University of Helsinki teamed up to study the causes of premature birth in humans. They published their findings in the journal PLoS Genetics.
According to Dr. Louis Muglia, vice chair of Research Affairs in the Vanderbilt Department of Pediatrics,
“Part of the problem is that we don’t understand the fundamental biology of human pregnancy and birth timing. We don’t know if preterm birth in humans is the normal process gone awry, or if it’s an entirely distinct process.”
Scientists have tried to use other animals to understand human pregnancy, but with limited success. Muglia explains that,
“The signals that control pregnancy and birth timing in animal models aren’t able to be extended to humans; human pregnancy differs from pregnancy in other animal species.”
Muglia and his team, theorised that large heads and narrow pelvises have caused human pregnancy, “to adapt and shift the time of birth to the earliest time compatible with optimal survival for both the mom and the fetus.”
They studied primate gestation, looking specifically at the length of gestation and the size of the brain and body at birth. By comparing their human findings to their findings in non-human primates, they concluded that human gestation has evolved to be shorter, over time.
Dr. Justin Fay, associate professor of Genetics at Washington University, developed a method of analysing the human genome to find “human accelerated genes” which might be responsible for dictating the length of gestation. He and his team compared human genes to the genes of six other animals and identified 450 human accelerated genes. From there he culled the group down to 150 genes that may have a role in pregnancy.
Through studies of Finnish mothers and corroborated by analysis of preterm births in African-American mothers, the team discovered that certain variations in the follicle stimulating hormone receptor (FSHR) were frequently present in mother’s who deliver prematurely. Up to this point, the FSHR gene was not associated with birth timing.
More research is needed to confirm and expand on the findings.
“Ideally,” said Muglia, “we’d like to predict which women are at greatest risk for having preterm birth and be able to prevent it. That would really have an impact on infant mortality and the long-term complications of being born prematurely.”
– Jen R, Staff Writer
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