Thirteen million babies are born prematurely every year, but new funding announced today will allow for pioneering research into the causes of preterm births and the development of solutions so they can be prevented.

The Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (GAPPS), an initiative of Seattle Children’s, announced a new Grand Challenges in Global Health program that will seek to discover and develop interventions to prevent preterm birth and stillbirth by limiting infection and improving nutrition. The program, called the Preventing Preterm Birth initiative, is supported by a commitment of US$20 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the organization set up by Bill Gates to support health and education around the world.

Globally, prematurity is the leading cause of death for newborns, every year taking the lives of one million babies before their first month of life. The Preventing Preterm Birth initiative will mobilize the scientific community to discover the reasons behind prematurity and support research into novel technologies and approaches that provide real-world solutions. The initiative was announced at a joint session of the Annual Grand Challenges Meeting and the Keystone Symposia Conference, in New Delhi, India.

“The objective of the Preventing Preterm Birth initiative is to inspire new scientific research and discover causes of preterm birth that we have never known,” said Craig Rubens, M.D., Ph.D., co-founder and Executive Director of GAPPS. “By uniting the scientific community to combat and prevent prematurity, we have the ability to make an enormous impact on global infant mortality rates.”

Smoking cessation and progesterone therapy are the only interventions proven to reduce preterm birth; two interventions difficult to deploy around the world. The Preventing Preterm Birth initiative aims to uncover at least two new maternal interventions that set prevention measures in motion for the developing and developed world.

“Preterm births claim far too many lives each year, particularly in the world’s poorest countries,” said Gary Darmstadt, Director of Family Health at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We urgently need new, groundbreaking ideas that ensure mothers receive the necessary health interventions to help their children have a healthy start to life.”

Under the initiative, GAPPS will solicit ideas from scientists around the world through January 31, 2012. The most promising applications will be selected by a review committee of experts and asked to submit full proposals for further consideration and funding from the pool of resources provided by the Gates Foundation.

“Prematurity and stillbirth are complex global health problems that require an interdisciplinary research approach and an international commitment,” said Alan E. Guttmacher, M.D., Director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. “NICHD is pleased to see this new initiative that is so closely aligned with the Institute’s goals. Discovery science, whether funded by the Preventing Preterm Birth initiative, NICHD or other funders, is the foundation of long-term strategies to prevent preterm birth.”

Members of the scientific community can apply to be a sub-grantee at where information on the rules for grants can be found. Applicants will be required to also submit their ideas for catalyzing further investments in prematurity research

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