• Claire Benjamin

Using game theory to help prevent pregnancy disorders


Life is a game. From the moment sperm fertilizes egg, you are either winning or losing. Using game theory--the study of competition and conflict--researchers can quantify the inherent tug-of-war between mother and fetus.

In zero-sum games, what one gains the other loses: when the baby gains nutrients, the mother loses nutrients. The player that wins is rewarded and the loser is punished; the reward may be full-term birth, while the punishment is premature birth.

The IGB research theme Computing Genomes in Reproductive Health (CGRH), is modeling reproductive games, and their outcomes, to better understand pregnancy--and ultimately to ensure that both mother and child can win.

Every year, an estimated 15 million babies are born before 37 weeks, according to the World Health Organization. Yet there is only one, symptom-based term for this outcome: preterm birth. How many conditions--like preeclampsia or infections or genetic predispositions--can cause preterm birth?

“Our group would like to take a precision medicine approach to pregnancy disorders like this,” said Professor of Molecular and Integrative Physiology Derek Wildman, theme leader of CGRH. “Of those 15 million preterm births, how many causes are there really? Cause, rather than outcome, is ultimately the good scientific way for us to understand health and disease.”

But it is more complex than cause and effect. CGRH will model interactions across biological levels (from intracellular to population) to understand how to prevent negative outcomes like preterm birth.

“We have to think about game theory at these different scales and design new games that are appropriate for each of these,” Wildman said. “Then we can play these games with medically relevant data to see if we can make insights into the disease process.”

In reality, mothers and babies are not the only players. Preterm babies are at risk for health problems--like diabetes and mental health disorders--that can have a long-term impact on their families and communities. Preventing more preterm births today will ultimately benefit society and our health system in the long run.

“As part of our land grant mission, we are here as professors to do research that improves the lives of Illinois' citizens,” Wildman said. “That is codified, and it gives us a mandate to go out and do just that.”

This article originally appeared on the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology website.

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