Researchers say they've pinpointed gene areas linked with preterm birth -- and they said this could pave new ways to prevent the leading cause of death among children under age 5 worldwide.
The team looked at DNA and other data from more than 50,000 women from the United States and northern European countries. The researchers identified six gene regions that influence the length of pregnancy and the timing of birth.
"These are exciting findings that could play a key role in reducing newborn deaths and giving every child the chance to grow up smart and strong," said Trevor Mundel, president of the Global Health Division at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Preterm infants (born before 37 weeks of pregnancy) are at increased risk of death. Those who survive often have serious, lifelong health problems.
The new study found that one of the gene areas identified involves cells of the lining of the uterus, which may play a role in pregnancy length. Researchers said this may be a target for medications to prevent preterm birth.
Another finding from the studies involves the dietary mineral selenium and how a deficiency might affect preterm birth risk. Selenium is found in Brazil nuts, yellowfin tuna, beef liver, sardines and some meats.
"Not only did the study reveal several genes linked to preterm birth, it also identified a simple, low-cost solution -- selenium supplements for expectant mothers -- that, if confirmed, could save thousands of lives," Mundel said in a news release from the March of Dimes.
Study co-coordinator Dr. Louis Muglia is the principal investigator of the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center -- Ohio Collaborative. "We have known for a long time that preterm birth is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Previous research has suggested that about 30 to 40 percent of the risk for preterm birth is linked to genetic factors," he said.
"This new study is the first to provide robust information as to what some of those genetic factors actually are," Muglia noted, though his team said more research is needed to build upon the findings.
Stacey Stewart, president of the March of Dimes, said, "This is a very exciting discovery that can be expected to lead to the development of new treatments to prevent pregnant women from going into labor too soon and to give more babies a healthy start in life."
The study was published Sept. 6 in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on preterm birth.
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