May 6, 2021

UCalgary research into preemies to receive $5M in community funding

More than 40 scientists and clinical researchers launch initiative
UCalgary research preterm birth
Molly and Patrick Wilding with their daughter Gianna, who was 1 lb 6 oz at birth, four months early. Wilding family

Molly and Patrick Wilding are parents of a preemie, Gianna, born in January 2020 at 23 weeks and six days gestation. They are one of the many families in Alberta who have welcomed a preterm baby into their family. “Gianna’s unexpected, early birth was a complete shock to us. I was a healthy woman with no known warning signs during pregnancy. Why was this happening?” Molly asks.

Alberta has one of the highest preterm birth rates in Canada. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, nine per cent of babies born in 2018-2019 were delivered before 37 weeks. To find solutions, more than 40 scientists and clinical researchers at the University of Calgary have launched an unprecedented initiative to benefit expectant mothers and newborns.

They will be funded by $5 million in community donations through the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation and Calgary Health Foundation. Together they will address one of the Grand Challenges of the University of Calgary Child Health and Wellness Strategy – Better Beginnings.

“Preterm birth means babies in our province are at higher risk of complications that contribute to impaired brain development, physical disability and neonatal death. For babies who survive, the effects of preterm birth can last a lifetime and change the entire course of their future,” says Dr. Donna Slater, PhD, a maternal and child health and wellness scientist at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and a co-lead in the initiative.

In the first phase now underway, scientists are working to develop a rapid lab-based diagnostic blood test. They will also use the power of advanced machine learning to generate personalized risk scores for pregnant women, enabling health-care professionals to anticipate preterm births and provide care strategies tailored for individual families.

“By developing simple, cost-effective tools that families can access in the community, we have the potential to significantly shift care delivery and services for expectant mothers,” says co-lead Dr. Amy Metcalfe, PhD, a perinatal epidemiologist in ACHRI.

“Ultimately, we want to help more moms extend their pregnancies and welcome healthier babies into their families,” adds Dr. Lara Leijser, MD, PhD, a neonatologist in the Calgary zone and co-lead on the ACHRI team.

Preterm birth research

Researcher team leaders Drs. Amy Metcalfe, Donna Slater, and Lara Leijser


The researchers will invite 4,000 expectant mothers from Calgary and southern Alberta to participate in research throughout their pregnancy and for up to one year after they have delivered their babies. Fathers and partners will also be encouraged to take part. Families will share biological samples, answer questionnaires about themselves and their babies, and the study team will review medical records at predetermined time points.

The team will recruit families in partnership with Alberta Health Services’ ultrasound clinics, outpatient obstetric clinics, obstetrical triage, and the wider Calgary community. The team has already begun the first phase and plans to invite more participants this summer.

This research investment is part of the Calgary Health Foundation’s Newborns Need campaign — a $152 million commitment to advance maternal and newborn care in southern Alberta.

“Calgary is uniquely positioned to provide crucial leadership in reducing the risks, incidence and long-term effects of preterm birth for families here and around the world,” says Saifa Koonar, president and CEO of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation. “We are grateful that years of generous community support have helped our city build a critical mass of internationally acclaimed leaders in the field ready to solve this issue for families.”

Grateful to donors for investing in preterm birth prevention

Molly and Patrick Wilding at home with Gianna.

Wilding family

“This initiative is bringing together local biomedical scientists, doctors, nurses, psychologists, imaging specialists and epidemiologists to give every newborn a fighting chance,” says Mike Meldrum, president and CEO of the Calgary Health Foundation. “With experts collaborating from the lab to the clinic and into our community, southern Alberta families will become the first to benefit from breakthroughs in preterm birth interventions.”

“We are so grateful to our incredibly generous community for investing in this brilliant team of scientists and care providers driving research and advancing care that helps moms, babies and families. This research initiative will have a lifelong impact on families and help children born prematurely reach their full potential,” says Dr. Susa Benseler, MD, PhD, director of ACHRI.

Molly and Patrick Wilding are grateful to donors for investing in preterm birth prevention and enhanced neonatal intensive care. “This important research will help to identify families, like ours, who are at risk for preterm births, allowing for earlier interventions and better outcomes.”

Donna Slater is an associate professor in the departments of Physiology & Pharmacology and Obstetrics & Gynaecology at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI).

Amy Metcalfe is an associate professor in the departments of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Community Health Sciences and Medicine at CSM. She is a member of ACHRI, the O'Brien Institute for Public Health and the Libin Cardiovascular Insitute.

Lara Leijser is an assistant professor in the Department of Paediatrics, Section of Neonatology, at CSM and a member of ACHRI.

Child Health and Wellness
The University of Calgary is driving science and innovation to transform the health and well-being of children and families. Led by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, top scientists across campus are partnering with Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, and our community to create a better future for children through research.