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Vol. LX, No. 15
July 25, 2008

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NICHD’s Spong Honored for Maternal- Fetal Medicine Research

Dr. Catherine Spong

“It’s the only field of medicine where you can witness pure joy,” said Dr. Catherine Spong about her decision to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology. She became chief of NICHD’s Pregnancy and Perinatology Branch in 2001. She said that being part of a childbirth is a great privilege, as the event often is among the happiest times in a person’s life. When she came to NIH in 1998, she began a research career that paralleled her work in the delivery room. By focusing on maternal-fetal medicine research, she could work toward the goal of ensuring a healthy birth for all new mothers and their infants.

Recently, the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM) acknowledged Spong for that career with its most prestigious award. The SMFM Achievement Award is presented each year to a leader who has made outstanding contributions to the field.

The society cited Spong’s work on Down syndrome and fetal alcohol syndrome. She began this research soon after coming to NICHD, when she joined the section on developmental and molecular pharmacology. She was interested in a substance called vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP).

“The literature showed that fetal animals deprived of VIP had a lot of problems,” she said.

VIP was first isolated from the digestive tract. Early studies revealed that the substance was abundant in the nerve bundles that permeate the intestines. It has since been found throughout the nervous system.

“If you deprived pregnant animals of VIP at a critical time during pregnancy, you saw a syndrome very much like fetal alcohol syndrome,” Spong said, referring to earlier work done under the direction of then section chief Dr. Douglas Brenneman. He and his colleagues also had learned that VIP protected brain and nerve cell cultures from injury.

In her early work at NICHD, Spong discovered that for the first 10 days of life, the fetus couldn’t produce VIP and instead relied on VIP from the mother. She explained that VIP doesn’t exert its protective effect directly. Rather, it stimulates cells of the nervous system to release other substances. From these substances, Brenneman’s group isolated two proteins. Fragments of these two proteins were found to have biological effects. These protein, or peptide, fragments were named NAP and SAL, for the first letters in the amino acid sequences that comprise them.

Spong, who became chief of the NICHD unit on perinatal and developmental neurobiology in 2004, has continued to investigate the protective effects of these two substances during her years at NIH. She and her coworkers learned that the two proteins could prevent alcohol-induced birth defects and learning deficits in baby mice. They have since found that NAP and SAL given at the same time prevent alcohol-induced learning deficits by protecting the NMDA receptor. The receptor, found on the surface of brain cells, plays a key role in long-term memory and learning.

Recently, Spong and her coworkers have begun studying the effects of the two compounds in a mouse model of Down syndrome. When given in fetal life, NAP and SAL prevented some of the developmental delay otherwise seen in the mice. Moreover, the two peptides also appear to increase learning in healthy mice. In fact, NAP and SAL boosted learning not only when given to fetal mice, but also when given to adult mice.

Spong joined the NICHD Extramural Pregnancy and Perinatology Branch in 2000, to serve as program scientist for the Maternal-Fetal Medicine Units Network. The network of 14 research hospitals conducts studies on childbirth, with a particular emphasis on reducing premature birth. Infants born prematurely are at increased risk of death and lifelong disability.

“Under her stewardship, the many talented and strong-willed researchers who are part of the MFMU Network have worked together efficiently and cordially, and have completed several practice-changing trials,” wrote Dr. Katherine Wenstrom, SMFM’s immediate past president, in a letter to NICHD director Dr. Duane Alexander.

During Spong’s tenure, the network made the first real breakthrough in reducing the risk of preterm birth, a problem that has long confounded researchers and public health officials. In 2003, a large network study found that the drug 17-alpha hydroxyprogesterone caproate reduced the chances of giving birth prematurely by 34 percent in a large category of at-risk women— those pregnant with a single child and who had previously given birth prematurely. A follow-up study revealed that the treatment did not reduce the risk of preterm delivery in women pregnant with twins.

Another network study under Spong’s direction found that a prior Cesarean delivery poses few risks for women who deliver vaginally in subsequent pregnancies. Still another study evaluated a monitor for measuring blood oxygen levels of a baby during labor. The expensive monitor—expected to provide information useful for preventing birth complications—was found to offer no apparent benefit.

When she’s not busy with her research at NICHD, Spong spends time with her husband and three small children. “The most important thing in life is family,” she said. She’s also a staff perinatologist at the INOVA Alexandria Hospital, in Alexandria, Va. Once a week, she performs ultrasound exams and consults with patients and families. She also sees high-risk patients on an on-call basis.

“The SMFM Achievement Award is the kind of award that most individuals receive at the end of their career,” Wenstrom wrote to Alexander. “The fact that Dr. Spong has already made the monumental contributions to our society and our specialty that qualify her for this award illustrates her tremendous talent and sterling character. The NIH is fortunate to have such a superstar among its family.”

Dr. David Lipman, director of the National Center for Biotechnology

NCBI’s Lipman Is Award Finalist

Dr. David Lipman, director of the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Library of Medicine, is a finalist for a “Service to America Medal,” for leading the development of the PubMed Central database. The non-profit organization Partnership for Public Service presents the medals annually to federal workers who make “high-impact contributions critical to the safety, health and well-being of Americans.” PubMed Central is a digital archive of biomedical literature that provides the public with free, online access to the full text of journal articles. Partnership for Public Service said PubMed Central “enhances biomedical research in a way that is accelerating scientific discovery and increasing public knowledge.” Lipman is one of 29 finalists for eight awards that will be announced in September.

NIDA Council Welcomes Five New Members

Five members were recently named to the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse.

Five members were recently named to the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse. NIDA deputy director Dr. Tim Condon (l) and NIDA director Dr. Nora Volkow (fifth from l) welcomed (from l) Dr. Hazel Szeto, professor, department of pharmacology, Weill Medical College, Cornell University; Dr. Steven Childers, professor, department of physiology and pharmacology, Center for Investigative Neuroscience, Wake Forest University School of Medicine; Dr. Xavier Castellanos, Brooke and Daniel Neidich professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, department of child and adolescent psychiatry, Child Study Center, New York University School of Medicine; Dr. Anita Everett, section director, community and general psychiatry, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center; and Dr. Thomas Crowley, professor, department of psychiatry, and director, division of substance dependence, University of Colorado Health and Science Center.

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