It's Not What You Think: Behind the Scenes at BWF's Preterm Birth Initiative

In the U.S., one in eight babies is born preterm, and yet few grant makers are out on the frontlines, supporting research into the medical basis of the problem. The United States’ preterm birth rate started to shoot up in the 1950s and 60s—an outgrowth of the teenage pregnancy rate and the smoking rate among women going up—reaching a peak of 12.8% in 2006. Thereafter—partly due to the efforts of grantmakers, partly due to the Center for Disease Control making the problem a priority—the rate began to drop, and has dropped every year since. Still, among developed nations, the rate is high. The United States shares company on the top of the preterm birth list with India, China, and Pakistan, among others. It’s unsettling, and while there is a wealth of grantmakers targeting access to care for pregnant women, none we’ve yet seen are homing in on medical research into preterm birth quite like BWF.

In 2009, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund decided to get into the preterm birth game by establishing a Reproductive Sciences grantmaking program, and, under it, a Preterm Birth initiative. That first year, it awarded ten small pilot grants; in 2011, it came back and gave $600,000, four-year grants to five of the pilot projects. In 2013, it gave another round of five $600,000 grants to fresh projects. Now, it seems as though this program is finding its sea legs, going from awarding grants every other year to a more predictable, annual cycle. Applications for the 2014 cycle were due in December, 2013, so now is the time to start watching for the announcement of the deadlines for the 2015 grant cycle, which, if the program’s website is any indication, should be soon to come.

As we’ve come to expect from the BWF, merit will be based on inventiveness, collaboration, and an interdisciplinary approach. In fact, at least one member of the applicant team must have professional training outside the field of reproductive health. Recently, funded proposals have tackled the genetics of preterm birth (George Scott Worthen, MD, University of Pennsylvania), irregularities in progesterone receptors (Francesco J. DeMayo, PhD, Baylor College of Medicine), and, surprisingly, mucus. Two of 2013’s funded projects looked at the integrity of the cervical mucus and its implications for bringing on preterm labor.

Other than building an interdisciplinary project, the best advice we can give towards nabbing a preterm birth grant from BWF is to start building a relationship with the organization. Though this program is only a few years old, some definite favorites have emerged among the past recipients of these grants, among them the Baylor College of Medicine, Washington University, and Pennsylvania University. That’s good news geographically, but a little mystifying otherwise. Perhaps these three institutions have just the interdisciplinary derring-do BWF is looking for? We can always speculate. It does seem, though, that BWF favors universities with a proven track record and the right mix of resources and know-how. It will be interesting to see what the future of the Preterm Birth Initiative brings; expect 2015’s application deadline to land on or around early December of this year.