Progress on Theme 3

Setting the Foundation for Healthy Pregnancies and Lifelong Wellness

Highlighted Programs and Activities

  • NEW: Innovative screening approaches and therapies for screenable disorders in newborns
    NICHD is encouraging research related to the development of novel screening approaches and/or therapeutic interventions for potentially fatal or disabling conditions identifiable through newborn screening. Activities on "high priority" genetic conditions, for which screening may be possible soon, are also encouraged. Learn more: PAR-21-353, PAR-21-354, PAR-21-355.
  • Decoding Maternal Morbidity Data Challenge
    This project promoted innovation in computational analysis and unique learning approaches or models specifically related to existing data on maternal morbidity in first-time moms. The effort utilized a publicly available NICHD-funded dataset to identify new paradigms to decrease the rates of maternal morbidity. In December 2021, 12 prizes were awarded to seven winners who proposed innovative solutions for identifying risk factors in first-time pregnancies. Learn more about this effort.
  • Intramural research: Preterm birth
    The Perinatal Research Branch (PRB), within the NICHD Division of Intramural Research, studies intra-amniotic infection and inflammation, vascular disorders, maternal anti-fetal rejection (chronic inflammatory lesions of the placenta), cervical disease, and a decline in progesterone action. Learn more about PRB’s research.

Selected Recent Advances

  • NEW: Researchers link depression during pregnancy to placental gene modifications (PMID: 34585950)
    In an epigenome-wide association study, researchers found that episodes of maternal stress or depression during pregnancy were associated with chemical modifications to placental genes. The modifications involve DNA methylation—binding of compounds known as methyl groups to DNA—which can alter a gene’s activity. Some of the methylation changes associated with maternal depression occurred near genes involved in fetal brain development, suggesting that maternal depression in pregnancy could have long-term implications for brain development and function of children.
  • NEW: Homicide during pregnancy and the postpartum period in the United States (PMID: 34619735)
    Homicide is a leading cause of death during pregnancy and the postpartum period in the United States. To estimate national pregnancy-associated homicide mortality rates, researchers examined mortality files from the National Center for Health Statistics from 2018 and 2019. There were 3.62 homicides per 100,000 live births among females who were pregnant or within 1 year postpartum, a figure 16% higher than homicide prevalence among non-pregnant and non-postpartum females of reproductive age, with a homicide rate of 3.12 deaths per 100,000 population. Homicide during pregnancy or within 42 days of the end of pregnancy exceeded all the leading causes of maternal mortality by more than twofold. Pregnancy was associated with a significantly elevated homicide risk in the Black population, and among females ages 10 years to 24 years across racial and ethnic subgroups.
  • NEW: Lab-grown placental stem cells may yield insights into preeclampsia (PMID: 33723311)
    The disease processes responsible for preeclampsia are not well understood, but abnormal development and functioning of trophoblasts are thought to play a role. Scientists used new technology to generate trophoblast cell lines from placentas of pregnancies with and without preeclampsia. They also used advanced techniques to analyze the trophoblasts’ gene activity and assess DNA methylation patterns, which can alter a gene’s activity. Compared to trophoblast cells generated from healthy placentas, cells from placentas with preeclampsia were slower to form syncytiotrophoblasts, a subtype of more mature trophoblast cells. These cells were also less effective at exchanging oxygen, nutrients, and wastes between mother and fetus. The findings provide information that may inform future research to diagnose and treat preeclampsia early in pregnancy.
  • Reducing disparities in severe maternal morbidity (PMID: 31978432)
    Researchers analyzed results of an initiative undertaken at 99 California hospitals to reduce the risk of severe maternal morbidity from obstetric hemorrhage, a common major complication of childbirth. The initiative benefitted Black women more than white women, reducing disparities.
  • Placental DNA in maternal blood could predict later pregnancy complications (PMID: 33045922)
    Traces of genetic material from the placenta and other fetal organs circulating in a pregnant woman’s blood stream could potentially be used to predict the risk for complications, such as gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, in later pregnancy.
  • Women with asthma may be at higher risk for weight gain during pregnancy (PMID: 33169142)
    Scientists found that women with asthma were more likely than women without asthma to gain weight during pregnancy and to retain that weight 3 months after giving birth. On average, women with asthma gained 3.1 kilograms (just less than 7 pounds) more after a full-term pregnancy than did women without asthma.
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