MSU seeking solutions for pre-term birth

Hanne Hoffmann partners on research with March of Dimes

Hanne Hoffman

Each year in the United States approximately 380,000 babies are born prematurely – before 37 weeks of pregnancy. In fact, complications from premature birth are the No. 1 cause of death for babies born in the U.S.

Michigan State University Department of Animal Science Assistant Professor Hanne Hoffmann is partnering with March of Dimes to help curtail these startling statistics. Conducting research to halt pre-term labor, Hoffman’s ultimate goal is to identify novel drug solution for the treatment of infertility and mis-timed labor.

“We are trying to figure out if we can develop better strategies to help delay pre-term births, and that’s a major need, because currently we don't have anything that works consistently,” said Hoffmann. “There are treatments that will delay or halt labor for a while, but we don't have anything that consistently works for all women.”

Her work is focusing on Circadian rhythms – such as sleep and wake cycles – and how they impact reproductive cycles. The studies have led her to melatonin, a chemical often referred to as “the hormone of night.”

Later in pregnancy, Hoffman said uterine contractions naturally increase at night when levels of melatonin in the body tend to rise. Through research, she has determined that melatonin is one stimulator of uterine contractions – while the primary hormone stimulator is oxytocin.

“Doctors generally use Pitocin (oxytocin injection) to induce labor, which targets the oxytocin receptor. But if you give someone both oxytocin and melatonin at the same time, it potentiates the effects,” she said.

“So, we started researching these drugs and these receptors and found that, depending on how much you activate one receptor versus another, you can either promote uterine contractions or reduce them.”

Hoffmann is also examining how light exposure at various times of the day affects melatonin levels and in turn, can translate into effects on uterine contractions. Combining an understanding of these natural cycles along with hormone drugs can potentially better control contractions, Hoffman said.

The next steps are clinical trials, which are being approved through a partnership between MSU and McLaren.

“Even though our primary focus is to halt pre-term labor, as we are doing these pharmacological screenings, we are also identifying better ways to induce labor,” Hoffmann said. “We are really manipulating the same targets – trying to either make the oxytocin receptor stop working or trying to make it work – to either have uterine muscle contractions or have them stop. This process really can have a dual application.”

Hoffmann will present her findings in May at a virtual meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Immunology.

“As a basic researcher, one major issue we run into is communicating our findings to physicians, because it’s one thing to draw conclusions from what we find in the lab and another thing having it translate in the hospital,” she said.

“With our collaboration with McLaren, hopefully, within the next few years, we will see changes here in the Lansing area,” she said. “But this conference is a really great venue to speak to key people in the field treating pregnancy associated disorders and women's health. It's a really great opportunity to share our findings, and hopefully get more people interested in this study.”

Not only does she hope to reduce pre-term births, Hoffman wants to discover more effective methods to reduce Cesarean section births and time in labor.

The five-year project will focus on women in their first trimester and follow them through the births of their children.

“The studies we're doing with human cell lines are really promising, and we expect that in the next year, we're going to have some exciting data that can be published about the interaction of oxytocin and melatonin receptors,” she said.

Hoffmann also hopes to examine whether simple methods such as adjusting light levels in rooms will help regulate contractions.

“If you have a woman going into preterm birth, just turning on the lights might naturally halt or reduce contractions, simply because you suppress the natural release of melatonin,” she said. “If we can reduce contractions by simply adjusting the lights at night, we might be able to avoid giving a woman too many drugs when she's pregnant or in labor.”

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