In June 2015, the March of Dimes Foundation announced a collaboration with the University of Chicago, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and Duke Medicine to create a new March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center focused on determining the currently unknown factors causing premature birth.

Premature birth affects 1 in 9 babies born in the United States and remains one of modern medicine’s most challenging public health problems to unravel. Despite advances in obstetrics and prenatal care, the causes for premature birth are still unknown and effective preventive treatments remain elusive. Under the leadership of PI and Program Director Carole Ober, PhD, the University of Chicago Medicine will have the lead role in this project, to which March of Dimes will contribute $10 million over the next five years. The Center for Research Informatics will contribute to this important research in several areas, from sample tracking to bioinformatics analysis.

The fifth prematurity research center established by March of Dimes, the UChicago-Northwestern-Duke center will focus specifically on mapping critical regulatory genes and genetic “switches” relevant to pregnancy across five transdisciplinary research areas. This transdisciplinary approach, in which one topic is addressed from many scientific perspectives, is considered vital to untangling the complex problem of premature birth, which may include biological, physical, environmental, social, and behavioral risk factors. Investigators will combine expertise in disciplines ranging from pediatrics to statistics to bioinformatics to unlock this genetic mystery and develop novel strategies to reduce preterm birth rates.

The CRI’s informatics resources were instrumental in demonstrating UCM’s ability to take the leading role in this research effort, and we will contribute significantly to the center’s work over the next five years. Since December 2014, the CRI has been working closely with the rest of the UChicago team and has developed a custom-built solution that meets this project’s unique needs. Patients will be enrolled at multiple institutions, and their data will be collected and centrally stored at UChicago. Samples will be collected and sent to UChicago for further processing. Once at UChicago, samples will be carefully tracked through the system, and highly detailed audit controls will be in place to meet all clinical trial requirements.

In addition to the sample tracking system, the CRI has developed a data analysis platform to catalog the process of procuring cell lines, performing genomic analyses, and analyzing and reporting the data. The system has gone live for local testing and will be deploying consortium-wide in 2016. As the project progresses, the CRI will continue to participate in the center’s research by providing bioinformatics expertise and genomic analysis. In addition, we will support the large-scale data analysis that this research will require with the use of our high-performance computing cluster and secure, HIPAA-compliant data storage resources.