Dr. Bhatt, principal investigator of the Neonatal Research Network, visits Marian Johnson, a patient in the Sanderson Tower. Credit: Joe Ellis / UMMC Communications

The National Institutes of Health is awarding the University of Mississippi Medical Center about $2 million to study how to improve health outcomes for newborns. 

UMMC will work with 14 other health centers across the country for the next seven years as part of the Neonatal Research Network. The health systems, which include Duke University, Emory University and Stanford University, will collaborate to conduct studies and trials on infants.

“UMMC has received international recognition by joining this group of other reputed academic centers across the US,” said Dr. Abhay Bhatt, professor of pediatrics and director of research in UMMC’s Division of Neonatology and the study’s principal investigator, in a press release sent Thursday. 

“Our faculty and trainees will get the opportunity to collaborate with their counterparts in other institutions, and our scientists, in collaboration with our newborn faculty, will get the opportunity to develop funded translational research studies involving newborns.”

The network, funded by the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, was formed in 1986 to properly evaluate newborn care, especially those admitted to neonatal intensive care units upon birth. The network studies infant mortality, preterm birth rate and low birthweight rates — all areas in which Mississippi ranks the lowest in the country. 

Connecting multiple clinic centers in the network has allowed for larger sample sizes to be collected and quick testing that wouldn’t be possible on an individualized basis. 

UMMC’s addition to the network is a “monumental achievement,” said Dr. Courtney Walker, assistant professor of psychiatry and Mississippi’s representation in the network. 

“We have the highest preterm birth rate in the country, and being a part of the NRN gives infants and their families the opportunity to be a part of cutting-edge treatment and management strategies that they may not have access to otherwise,” she said. “Given that a lot of our babies are born premature in Mississippi, it is critical to study these new techniques here so that we can help determine whether or not they would benefit our children.”

Since its inception, the network has published nearly 500 articles to guide clinical practice as it relates to newborns. 

As part of the network, UMMC will participate in some ongoing observational studies about premature babies and morbidity and mortality rates in low-birth weight infants, including a study about the effectiveness of treating premature babies with 15 minutes of light therapy per hour instead of continuous light therapy to control bilirubin levels, which at high levels causes jaundice. 

UMMC is home to the state’s only Level IV neonatal intensive care unit. 

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Devna Bose, a Neshoba County native, covers community health. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied print journalism and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Devna reported on education at Chalkbeat Newark and at the Post and Courier’s Education Lab, and on race and social justice at the Charlotte Observer. Her work has appeared in the Hechinger Report, the Star-Ledger and the Associated Press, and she has appeared on WNYC to discuss her reporting. Devna has been awarded for her coverage of K-12 education in the Carolinas.