Decoding preterm birth and its causes

The call came on Christmas. Lauren and Vernon learned that their soon-to-be adoptive daughter, Ahna, was about to be born. 

But the call was 13 weeks too early—they weren’t supposed to become parents until March. 

“We rushed to the hospital as soon as we got the call,” Lauren remembers. “Ahna’s birth mom was in emergency surgery. We had no idea what to expect or if our daughter would even survive.”

Ahna made it through the night and immediately was placed in the birth hospital’s newborn intensive care unit (NICU). She only weighed one pound. Her lungs weren’t fully developed and her windpipe wasn’t strong enough to stay open on its own. She needed help to breathe.

“When I saw her for the first time, she looked so tiny and frail,” Vernon said. “I felt like I had to protect her. We had to make sure she had the best care.”

Ahna’s doctors knew she needed more intense, specialized care. Two months later, when she was stronger and stable enough, she was transferred to our nationally ranked NICU, where she began a five-month journey to grow and heal so she could go home with her family.

Driven by Discovery

Asking tough questions inspires everything we do at Cincinnati Children’s—like, “Why are some babies born too early?” 

It’s a mystery that Lou Muglia, MD, PhD, co-director of our Perinatal Institute, and Ge Zhang, MD, PhD, a research expert in human genetics, are working tirelessly to pursue. 

“We’re doing better at taking care of very premature babies. Babies that didn’t survive 10 or 15 years ago now routinely do,” Dr. Muglia says, then pauses. “But not without problems. And preventing their early births will help us avoid a lot of those issues.”

At 11.2 percent, the preterm birthrate in Cincinnati is much higher than the national average. That means more babies born in our community are at risk for lifelong medical complications, or worse—not making it to their first birthday. 

We need to do better.

Research Reveals Clues

Drs. Muglia and Zhang are committed to making sure all children have the best possible chance for long, healthy and productive lives. In our Center for Prevention of Preterm Birth, they, along with other experts, are hard at work to uncover the root causes of this vexing problem. Right now, scientists don’t understand how and why a woman’s body determines when it goes into labor, so preventing an early birth is an incredible challenge.  

In researching the reasons why some women are more prone to early labor, our experts discovered a big answer—one that has potential to unlock a future where we can predict and prevent premature deliveries. 

Gifts Fuel This Work 

Because of a generous $1 million gift from the Fifth Third Foundation and support through national grants, Dr. Muglia and his team were able to launch a study to dive deep into the causes of preterm births, and the women who have them. 

Our team conducted a massive DNA analysis of pregnant women and identified six gene regions that influence the length of pregnancy and timing of birth. The findings could lead to new ways to prevent preterm birth and the complications it causes.

This is a ground-breaking discovery, and the research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine by first author Dr. Zhang. All of this was possible because of generous philanthropic partners that fueled our work—bold new research that often doesn’t qualify for support from traditional sources.

“Fifth Third Bank understands that we must continually invest in our future,” says Heidi Jark, Senior Vice President and Managing Director of the Foundation Office at Fifth Third Bank. “The Fifth Third Foundation chose to partner with Cincinnati Children’s in this way to help improve the overall health of our community, and ultimately our nation and world. We have a responsibility to do the most good that we can, and we were inspired by this innovative approach to ending preterm birth to save lives.”

With the support of our community and generous philanthropic partners, our experts look forward to learning how they can best translate our findings into medical advancements that save more lives

A Hope for the Future

For Lauren and Vernon, that research means hope that other families won’t go through the same experience.

“When Ahna first came to Cincinnati Children’s, we knew it would take drastic measures to help her live,” Vernon says. Doctors gave her a tracheostomy—an intense procedure that opened a hole in her windpipe—when she was just 3 months old. That procedure helped save her life, but also requires years of follow-up care.

Though her tracheostomy was removed two years later, Ahna continues to see specialists for her weak airway­—care she might not need if she was born at full term, with stronger lungs. But every day she continues to defy the odds.

“She’s doing incredible. She’s a normal child who is inquisitive; she’s smart, she sings and nothing can slow her down,” Lauren says. “She’s a frequent flier at Cincinnati Children’s, but we know she might not have made it without their experts.”

For more information on how you can support our preterm birth care and research, contact Jennie Parker at jennie.parker@cchmc.org or 513-636-1118.