The Future of Medicine: Genetically Tailored Treatments for Premature Babies

photo of Dr. Mestan

Why do some premature newborns experience adverse outcomes, while others do not? Karen Mestan, MD, attending physician in the Division of Neonatology, is determined to find the answers.

Dr. Mestan recently received a K23 award from the National Institutes of Health to explore the biochemical and genetic markers involved in pre-term birth (defined as babies born at less than 37 weeks gestation). Enhanced understanding could allow researchers to predict which babies are most at risk for pre-term birth and its adverse outcomes, such as chronic lung disease, poor growth and developmental problems.

Chicago has a particularly high incidence of pre-term births compared to other major cities. “Our partnership with Prentice Women’s Hospital provides a tremendous opportunity to study preterm birth and its outcomes,” says Dr. Mestan. Prentice is the largest birthing center in the Midwest and Illinois’ leading hospital for handling pre-term and complicated deliveries.

Dr. Mestan’s mentor, Xiaobin Wang, MD, MPH, ScD, director of the Mary Ann & J. Milburn Smith Child Health Research Program, has been studying the genetic markers for pre-term birth for the last decade using a large sample, or cohort, of infants in Boston. Building on her Boston cohort, Dr. Mestan is recruiting a Chicago cohort of 1,200 mother-infant pairs.

The study involves collecting cord blood at birth, following the mother and baby’s hospital courses, and monitoring the child’s long-term neurodevelopment.

“In caring for a critically ill infant, we often try a multitude of treatments, but maybe not every therapy is ideal for every baby,” Dr. Mestan says. “If we knew the genetic markers involved, we could individualize medicine for babies to improve outcomes — reducing hospitalizations and preventing complications.”

Dr. Mestan calls it tailored or individualized management. “It’s inspiring to think about how different care for babies will be in the next 10 years,” says Dr. Mestan. “I’m excited to be a part of shaping these important advances for children.”

This article first appeared in the fall 2010 issue of Heroes magazine.