08/21/2012 04:34 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2012

Universities Can Be Lifesavers

Many people agree that universities can change people's lives. But you don't often hear that universities help save lives. Sometimes, they do.

All research universities are in the knowledge business. We create it through research. We share it with students. This sounds simple enough, but the impact of universities is profound, both on the students we educate, and the world we all occupy.

But there is no impact more profound than direct intervention to preserve or save lives. This is the case with the Perinatology Research Branch (PRB) of the National Institutes of Health, which is housed on the campus of Wayne State University. This is a long name, but the PRB has a simple mission: employ the best of science to improve infant mortality.

Around the world, millions of babies each year are born prematurely. Premature births account for nearly 70 percent of infant deaths. And many babies who survive a preterm birth face a life filled with health issues, like cerebral palsy, blindness and learning disabilities. According to the March of Dimes, the annual cost of caring for preterm babies and their associated health problems tops $26 billion annually, just in the United States. In his 1963 appeal on behalf of the United Nations Children's Fund, President John F. Kennedy called children "the world's most valuable resource, and its best hope for the future." The PRB, created by an Act of Congress in the early 1990s and now housed at Wayne State, backs that belief with discovery, care and results.

Last year, results of a worldwide PRB-led study were described as the most significant advance in combating prematurity in decades. The study found that a daily dose of self-applied progesterone gel reduced the risk of preterm delivery in women with a short cervix by 45 percent. The study also showed the use of progesterone reduced the rate of respiratory distress syndrome in newborns by 61 percent. This is medicine that can be implemented quickly and inexpensively to change dramatically the fate of women and their babies around the world.

This spring, PRB researchers demonstrated that a nanotechnology-based drug treatment in newborn rabbits with cerebral palsy provided dramatic improvement of movement disorders and the inflammatory process of the brain that causes many cases of cerebral palsy. The findings strongly suggest that there may be an opportunity immediately after birth for drug treatment that could minimize the disorder.

These are just two examples among nearly 20 years of science and discovery. Since partnering with Wayne State, the PRB is unmatched in its research production, averaging one published research paper per week. Its current work on prematurity, cerebral palsy, congenital birth defects and preeclampsia is truly remarkable. And remarkable science is accompanied by real care. Since locating in Detroit, the PRB has been involved in the care of more than 20,000 mothers. All of this is a testament to the passion of scientists and doctors who tackle the problems of infant mortality, and breathe life into the words of JFK.

Universities do many things, and the effects reach far beyond the labs and campuses. We teach students; they improve the world. We make discoveries; new knowledge improves people's lives. And sometimes, with great science and great care, we save lives. Simple concepts; profound impact.