How curiosity inspired a new way to predict preterm births

January 12, 2021  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees, ,
Molly Stout, M.D., MSCI

Molly Stout, M.D., MSCI, may have only arrived at Michigan Medicine six months ago, but her innovative spirit has already made a big impact. As the division chief for Maternal Fetal Medicine, she immediately went to work on her passion project — solving the “why” behind preterm births (PTB).

“I’ve always been interested in research and I soon realized a lot of obstetrics remains unexplained, especially related to preterm births,” Stout said. “Over 10% of babies in the U.S. are born preterm, putting them at immediate risk of death and lifelong risk of adverse health outcomes, but we don’t have a clear understanding of the why behind our disease processes. 

“We don’t understand why preterm birth happens. For example, we don’t understand why it recurs in some people and not others, or why someone’s cervix shortens and they do deliver preterm and someone else’s cervix shortens and they do not deliver preterm.”  

These gnawing questions led her from clinical research projects at medical school in Chicago to residency research in St. Louis, then toward a fellowship in clinical investigation, until it finally landed her here, where she and her colleagues were awarded a Frankel Innovation Initiative Award to develop a method to accurately predict PTBs.

With help from the grant, Stout has pulled together a team of investigators, including physicians, sonographers and engineers from U-M, Brown University and Washington University in St. Louis.

The group will begin developing novel cervical imaging this year which will measure both the length of the cervix and how soft or firm it is to determine who is at highest risk of delivering early. The team’s hopes are that once refined, the technology will allow providers to determine if certain PTB prevention strategies are working during pregnancy, rather than waiting until women deliver preterm or at term.

Currently, there is no way to predict which women will deliver preterm and, therefore, providers are unable to personalize treatment.

Headlines recently spent some time with Stout to find out more about how she and the team continue to exemplify the organizational core value of innovation through their project.  

Q: You’ve done research at many institutions. What brought you here?

MS: I came to U-M because of the opportunity to lead the Maternal Fetal Medicine division. Innovation and maternal health are major priorities of the university, the hospital and the department, and we have the opportunity to build bridges to improve maternal and child health starting in pregnancy across the state of Michigan.

Q: Why bring colleagues together from other institutions? Doesn’t working with a remote/distant team cause challenges?

MS: I believe in bringing multidisciplinary teams and disciplines together to try to attack the problem in new ways. Yes, it poses challenges, especially during COVID-19 when we can’t travel to be together to train new people, but having multiple people involved from multiple universities allows us to enroll a broad swath of patients and increases the generalizability of our data. 

Q: Our core value of innovation says we promote a culture of creativity, flexibility and curiosity that inspires new ideas and ways of thinking, behaving and improving the world. How do you think your work represents that value?  

MS: The whole idea of this innovative research is bringing multiple minds and voices together on unsolved problems. Without everyone’s unique skill sets, ideas and training we would never have been able to come up with this project idea or execute it and complete the imaging. Even after we started the project, our team of sonographers, engineers and imaging experts continue to make new observations about things we notice in the data and that spurs new ideas. 

Q: If a student asked you how they could become more innovative, what would your suggestion be for having an innovative spirit or coming up with a novel idea?

MS: Talk to many different types of people and read things outside of your discipline because you never know where an idea will strike. For instance, there are things you can lift from engineering and apply to medicine, or that you can lift from business and apply to medicine, etc. 

Q: With everything that you do, how do you find the time to work on such an involved project?

MS: This is the million dollar question I think. I don’t have it all figured out. Some days and weeks go more smoothly than others. The key is to assemble great teams. Great teams are behind all great work. This is not a single-woman show.