Penn State College of Medicine receives nearly $4 million to study how COVID-19 affects maternal, child health during pregnancy

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February 14, 2022Penn State College of Medicine News

The Pennsylvania Department of Health has awarded Penn State College of Medicine $3.9 million through May 2025 to study the impact COVID-19 has on pregnancy. The researchers will conduct a multi-site study to examine the health outcomes for pregnant women and their infants before and after childbirth.

College of Medicine investigators will collaborate with health systems in Pennsylvania through an existing clinical and informatics research consortium known as the PaTH Network. The researchers will use integrated, electronic health records and patient-reported outcomes from Penn State Health, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Geisinger Health and Temple Health to evaluate data from roughly 48,000 expectant mothers from diverse communities within the commonwealth.

The goal of this research is to further understanding of how the COVID-19 pandemic has directly and indirectly affected health outcomes among pregnant women and their children by examining COVID-19 diagnoses, exposure maternal stress, preterm birth, low birth weight and maternal and neonatal deaths. In addition, researchers will survey a sample of 3,400 women to collect data during their pregnancies and at one, six and 12-months postpartum to gauge associations between COVID-19, psychological distress, longer term maternal health outcomes and child development.

“The ways in which COVID-19 affects families during and after pregnancy are very complex and understudied,” said Kristin Sznajder, lead investigator and assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences. “This project will provide important data on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on pregnancy including maternal health, infant development, and family well-being in Pennsylvania. Moreover, this study will examine the potentially uneven burden of the pandemic across communities characterized by race, ethnicity, neighborhood, poverty, education and maternal mental well-being.”

This research builds upon a preliminary study in 2020, which was led by Sznajder, and funded by a grant through the Penn State Huck Institutes for Life Sciences and Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics. According to the investigators, the current study will contribute to the development of future interventions that could improve health care for mothers and their children during a pandemic. An external advisory committee, representing top researchers and care providers with expertise in maternal and child health and underserved communities, will support the research team.

In addition, the team aims to create ample mentorship opportunities for racial minority students. Twenty students from Lincoln University, one of the country’s oldest historically black universities, will participate in Penn State’s Summer Undergraduate Research Internship Program (SURIP) and contribute to the project through mentored research from Penn State faculty and Lincoln University faculty members including Chasity Riddick, Eve Humphrey, Shardae Showell, James Gallagher and Carla Gallagher.

“SURIP brings students from different backgrounds to Penn State to gain research experience in laboratory, clinical or public health-based projects,” said Gail Matters, SURIP Director and associate professor in the Departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Medicine.

SURIP provides career development opportunities for college students who are interested in pursuing a PhD program within the field of biological sciences. The study will offer a hands-on learning experience for students by providing them the opportunity to work with investigators and establish long-term mentorship to support their career development.

Sznajder will lead a multi-disciplinary team of Penn State researchers composed of Wenke Hwang and Kristen Kjerulff, from the Department of Public Health Sciences; Richard Legro of Endocrinology and Obstetrics and Gynecology; Douglas Teti of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies; Jeffrey Kaiser of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital; Jaimey Pauli of Maternal and Fetal Medicine, Obstetrics and Gynecology; Ming Wang of Penn State Cancer Institute and the Department of Public Health Sciences; Carrie Daymont of the departments of  Pediatrics and Public Health Sciences; Rina Eiden of the Department of Psychology; and Carol Weisman, Penn State University emeritus professor.

Clinical site investigators from collaborating health systems include Kathleen McTigue from the University of Pittsburgh, Department of Medicine; Hyagriv Simhan from the Magee-Womens Research Institute and Foundation; A. Dhanya MacKeen from Geisinger Health; Anuradha Paranjape and Wadia Mulla from Temple University, Lewis Katz School of Medicine.

An external advisory committee including Patricia Fonzi of Family Health Council of Central Pennsylvania; Amanda Simanek of the University of Wisconsin; Brenda Dunston of the Philadelphia Black Women’s Health Alliance; and Gary Zegiestowsky of the Rural Health Redesign Center will also contribute to this research.

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