The renowned nonprofit March of Dimes is celebrating three-quarters of a century this year! From its role in developing the polio vaccine to its part in creating the APGAR score, the organization has done some impressive work in its lifetime. But it’s not finished yet. Here are just a few of the research topics March of Dimes grants are currently funding:
A researcher at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, is studying a recently identified form of Haemophilus (a family of bacteria) to learn how it causes severe newborn infections as a step toward developing effective drug treatment.
A researcher at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora is studying genetic causes of preeclampsia, a potentially dangerous pregnancy-related form of high blood pressure that usually leads to premature birth, with the intention of developing treatments.
A researcher at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville is developing effective drug treatment for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the leading cause of infant hospitalization in the U.S.
A researcher at Northwestern University in Chicago is studying how changes in gene function may predispose a woman to develop gestational diabetes as a basis for determining ways to prevent it.
A researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno, is studying variant versions of a protein structure in uterine muscle cells to see if any of the variants are linked with preterm labor. This study could improve identification of women at high risk of premature delivery and, ultimately, allow early treatment to prevent it.
We spoke with Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, March of Dimes President, to hear more about what the March of Dimes is doing and where they are headed in the future.
P&N:What is March of Dimes most proud of accomplishing in its first 75 years, and what is it hoping to accomplish in the next?
Dr. Howse: More than 4 million babies are born in the United States each year and the March of Dimes has helped each and every one of them through our research, education, vaccines and breakthroughs.
The March of Dimes was created in 1938 to end polio in the United States and we did. The Salk vaccine, developed and field tested with support from the March of Dimes, ended the epidemic and eliminated the fear of polio in our lifetime.
March of Dimes supported the 1953 work of James D. Watson to identify the double helix structure of DNA for which he won the Noble Prize in 1962 with Francis Crick. This breakthrough has led to dozens of tests and treatments for genetic diseases, as well as the mapping of the human genome.
We also supported Dr. Robert Guthrie’s work to develop the first screening test for PKU (phenylketonuria), allowing prevention of intellectual disabilities through diet. Since that time, the March of Dimes and family groups have campaigned tirelessly for laws to expand state newborn screening. As a result, every baby born in every state in the U.S. receives screening for dozens of conditions that could cause catastrophic health problems or death if not detected and then treated promptly at birth.
Today, we are hard at work to prevent the epidemic of premature birth, which affects nearly a half million babies every year. The March of Dimes established a transdisciplinary research center at Stanford University in California that is bringing together the brightest minds from many disciplines—geneticists, molecular biologists, epidemiologists, engineers, computer scientists and many others—to work together and find answers to explain and prevent preterm birth.
We work toward that day when every baby gets a healthy start in life. Through our “Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait” educational program, we give women and health care providers information about the importance of a full term healthy pregnancy to a newborn’s health. We encourage women, that if their pregnancy is healthy, to avoid scheduling a delivery before 39 weeks of pregnancy. The last few weeks of pregnancy are crucial to a baby’s health because that’s when important development of the brain, lungs and other organs occurs.
P&N: Do you have a personal connection to or anecdote about March of Dimes that made you realize your work with the organization was worthwhile (a sort of “aha! moment,” if you will)?
Dr. Howse:I had my very first successful March of Dimes fundraising experience when I was just four years old. I walked with my mother through our California neighborhood collecting dimes for my Uncle Joe who had polio. When I became president of the March of Dimes, my mom took credit for my early training and future success!
The decision to shift my early career and move to the March of Dimes grew out of my work as commissioner of Pennsylvania’s Office of Mental Retardation and executive director of the Willowbrook Review Panel, in New York City, which that oversaw the closure of Willowbrook State Center for the Mentally Retarded. After years of working in the field of developmental disabilities to treat and care for the children, I decided to focus on prevention. There were many children admitted to state residential facilities with mental retardation from preventable causes such as PKU, or rubella syndrome, which is harmful to a baby in utero. I became interested in improving primary prevention through public health interventions, clinical interventions, policy changes and research and found my way to the March of Dimes – the premier organization for improving babies health through prevention.
P&N:What’s the best way for those interested in supporting March of Dimes to get involved?
The easiest way to get involved is to go to our web site, marchofdimes.com. You can become a volunteer, learn more about mom and baby health or simply give so that more babies are born full-term and healthy.
We also have great events that are fun that the whole family can enjoy. For instance there’s our annual signature fundraiser, March for Babies the original walk fundraiser. Go to marchforbabies.org to find a walk near you and sign up for one of the 900 events near you.
There’s also our Signature Chefs events that feature top chefs from around the country cooking and fundraising on behalf of babies. Or, our Bikers for Babies rides that have been lead by famed rocker Dee Snider. There’s something for everyone. The money raised supports programs that help moms have healthy pregnancies and research to find answers to the problems that threaten babies.
March of Dimes supporters also can and speak out in support of laws and legislation to improve health care for women and children nationwide. Grassroots volunteers and staff promote the mission agenda on Capitol Hill and in state houses across the country. Supporters can become an eAdvocate, and get informed, and take action to improve the health of women, infants and children. We are a non-partisan organization.