Robert Sokol, M.D.
The Wayne State University School of Medicine has secured a unique grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that will expand research into maternal-fetal medicine with a focus on reducing high-risk pregnancies.
The grant, said Dr. Robert Sokol, M.D., the John M. Malone Jr., M.D., Endowed Chair and director of the C.S. Mott Center for Human Growth & Development at the School of Medicine, will complement research being conducted at the National Institutes of Health’s Perinatology Research Branch located at the Wayne State University School of Medicine and the Detroit Medical Center. Dr. Sokol serves as coordinator of the Kellogg grant.
The $750,000 grant will support research that WSU investigators will have to submit for consideration. A committee consisting of Dr. Sokol, Dean Valerie M. Parisi, M.D., M.P.H., M.B.A.; Bonita Stanton, M.D., vice dean of Research; Sonia Hassan, M.D., dean for Maternal, Perinatal and Child Health; and Hillary Ratner, WSU vice president of Research; and Gloria Heppner, WSU associate vice president of Research, will review applications for research projects under the grant. The group anticipates awarding three individual grants ranging from $90,000 to $125,000, followed by another round of like amounts during a 36-month period.
The Perinatal Virtual Discovery Grant is intended to encourage innovative, exploratory and evolving research projects, with the goal of attracting highly competent basic science and clinical researchers to apply their expertise to problems associated with high-risk pregnancy, perinatal research and other scientific endeavors related to improving pregnancy outcomes.
Dr. Sokol noted that another strategy behind the program is to provide funding for projects that could in turn attract additional research grants from other external agencies. Projects selected for funding will complement current research of the PRB and be best-positioned for external funding, with an eye toward exponential return on investment as success of the projects lead to greater external funding.
The Kellogg Foundation, Dr. Sokol said, rarely allows a grantee the leeway to determine how foundation funding will be further divided. “This is an indication of the great confidence they have in the research being conducted here,” he said.
Dr. Sokol said administrators of the grant hope to attract WSU researchers who might not normally believe their work relates to perinatal and maternal-fetal medicine, as well as faculty members already working in these areas. The grants, he said, should attract cross-disciplinary researchers.
“Wayne State University has been an international leader in this type of medicine and research since the 1960s,” Dr. Sokol said. “If you wanted to study in this area, you came here. This grant will expand research efforts that have a definitive impact on the area of maternal-fetal medicine and obstetrics and gynecology that will benefit our region and state, and will spread to the world.”
Premature birth is the leading cause of infant mortality in Michigan. The state’s rate of premature birth increased more than 10 percent between 1998 and 2008. One of every eight babies born in Michigan – 295 in an average week – is born prematurely. And Michigan’s rate of preterm birth (12.7 percent) exceeds the national average of 12.3 percent.
The Michigan Department of Community Health reports that for every 1,000 live births in the state, approximately eight infants die before their first birthday. Data compiled in 2009 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the MDCH indicate Michigan’s infant mortality rate consistently exceeds the national average. In addition, there is an alarming disparity in the access to care, quality of care and pregnancy outcome among ethnic groups in Michigan.
African-American mothers experience more birth complications, including more premature births, preeclampsia – a sudden and dangerous increase in blood pressure – and babies with low birth weight. Infants born to black mothers in Michigan are 70 percent more likely to be born prematurely than infants of other races, according to a 2010 report released by the Center for Healthcare Research & Transformation, a public policy and research organization based in Ann Arbor. Nineteen percent of babies born to black mothers in the state were born before 34 weeks of gestation, said the report, compared to 11 percent of white and Hispanic newborns. While the state’s rate of premature births held stable for births less than 34 weeks of gestation, the rate increased 20 percent among births between 24 to 27 weeks. In 2008, the city of Detroit alone experienced a premature birth rate of 17 percent.
Nationally, preterm birth is a $26 billion annual problem. The CDC reports that preterm births topped the list of the most expensive hospitalizations in Michigan in 2007. Each premature birth in the state costs an average of $102,103 at the time of discharge from the hospital, 14 times the cost of a normal birth.
It is problems such as these, Dr. Sokol said, that warrant this innovative pilot program.