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Research at Wayne/DMC saves at-risk babies

When you ask anyone what they think of when you say Detroit they will probably say “It’s The Motor City. It’s home to Motown music. It’s Hockey Town. It’s Tiger Town or it’s where Henry Ford lived.” In the past two years you might even hear someone say “Great Super Bowl Commercials” – “Imported from Detroit” or “It’s Halftime in America.” What you won’t hear anyone say is Detroit is home to the world’s foremost medical research to reduce infant mortality.

Work being done at Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center’s Hutzel Woman’s Hospital is saving the lives of at-risk babies every day.

Detroiter Kai Paul knows first-hand about this life-saving research.

In October 2009 she thought she was going to Hutzel Hospital for a routine prenatal check-up.  She was in her fifth month of pregnancy. She had no clue hers was high-risk and could result in her baby being born prematurely and possibly with severe health problems.  When Kia learned of her condition from an ultrasound she became hysterical and emotionally distraught.  She could not believe her baby’s life was threatened.  She was stunned, felt like she had nowhere to turn and thought she had little or no options other than to hope she would not suffer a spontaneous abortion.

Fortunately, she became part of a groundbreaking clinical trial at WSU and the PRB that enabled her to deliver a full-term, healthy baby boy – Chase Paul, who celebrated his second birthday this past February.

Today, Kai and Chase are doing fine and Kia is pursuing her degree in nursing. She credits the PRB with saving the life of her son. The multi-year study conducted at several dozen locations worldwide found using an ultrasound to identify a short cervix in pregnant women decreases the risk for premature births – and that treating them with an inexpensive progesterone gel significantly reduces premature delivery.

Unfortunately, infant mortality is a huge issue in Detroit. The rate of preterm birth here is 17% while the national average is 12.7%. “In terms of serving the high-risk population in Detroit, we’ve cared for more than 20,000 mothers and our mission is to continue to serve the population of Metro Detroit and beyond,” says Dr. Sonia Hassan, associate dean for maternal, perinatal and child health in the Wayne State University School of Medicine.

Dr. Sonia Hassan

That high rate was instrumental in bringing the Perinatology Research Branch (PRB) to Wayne and the DMC’s Hutzel Women’s Hospital in 2002. These two institutions were chosen to host the program because of the university’s strong Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the access to high-risk patients, including racial and ethnic minorities, and Wayne’s commitment to maternal and perinatal research.

“I believe the decision was based in large part on the high-risk population that exists in Detroit, including racial and ethnic diversity,” says Hassan. “This, together with the many resources available on the WSU/DMC campus, provided the ideal environment to conduct critically needed research into the many and diverse causes of adverse pregnancy outcomes.”

In addition, Dr. Roberto Romero, chief of the perinatology research branch housed at Wayne, is recognized as the world leader in perinatal research.

So why is preterm birth research so important to the U.S.? It accounts for nearly 70 percent of infant deaths. Preterm babies who do survive could face a life filled with numerous health issues including cerebral palsy, blindness and learning disabilities.  Preterm births are estimated to be 14 times the cost of a normal birth.  The latest available data (2005) reported nearly 13 million babies worldwide – 500,000 in the U.S. – were born premature.  Moreover, the annual cost of caring for preterm babies in the U.S., exceeds $26 billion and is among the most expensive hospitalizations.  At a cost of $19 million per 100,000 deliveries, the cost savings is significant.

Several studies have been done to reduce the cost and the risk. Perhaps the most significant was a 2011 study that demonstrated the rate of preterm delivery in women with a sonographic short cervix can be reduced by 45 percent simply by treating them with a low-cost, bio-identical to natural form of vaginal progesterone gel from mid-trimester of pregnancy until term. The study also showed the use of vaginal progesterone reduced the rate of respiratory distress syndrome in newborns by 61 percent. This protocol is currently saving infant lives around the globe.

This fall, WSU’s 10-year contract to host the PRB is up for renewal. The university and DMC are optimistic about continuing the successful partnership.  It’s good for Detroit’s economy as well. The Anderson Economic Group estimates the cumulative economic activity for metro Detroit during a second 10-year contract would exceed $347 million.

For mothers Wayne State and DMC have helped carry their babies to term, the benefits are priceless.

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