updated 10/31/2003 4:38:33 PM ET 2003-10-31T21:38:33

A new research center at a university hospital will be the nation’s first dedicated solely to preventing and seeking cures for birth defects.

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The center, at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, was created with $1 million from the March of Dimes and $2 million in private donations.

It will be led by Dr. Deepak Srivastava, a Dallas pediatric cardiologist, and Carole Mendelson, a professor of biochemistry, obstetrics and gynecology, March of Dimes and school officials said Tuesday.

“We see these children, we treat them, we do the best we can, but we have very little understanding of why they actually got a birth defect,” Srivastava said.

Srivastava’s research on birth defects as well as a longstanding relationship between the March of Dimes and the university weighed heavily in the decision to put the center in Dallas, said Jennifer Howse, March of Dimes president.

The university’s medical campus is an ideal location for the center because of its related research in children’s cancer, developmental biology and reproductive biology, university President Kern Wildenthal said at reception for dignitaries and contributors.

The center will allow researchers nationwide to come together to share their knowledge and practices, he said.

“By having a common pool of equipment, they can talk and rub shoulders and exchange ideas and the whole will be better than the sum of its parts,” Wildenthal said.

Birth defects are on the rise, both in the United States and worldwide. Premature births have risen 20 percent in the past 20 years, with about 1,280 premature babies are born daily worldwide, according to the March of Dimes.

These undeveloped babies are particularly prone to cerebral palsy, underdeveloped lungs and blindness. Heart problems such as weak capillaries and valves can cause a lifetime of medical problems, March of Dimes spokesman Alex Barbieri said.

Birth defects such as muscular dystrophy have no known cause.

Even defects that have known causes, such as spina bifida, are on the rise. Despite educational efforts to encourage women of child-bearing age to take folic acid as a prevention measure, spina bifida has increased in the last 15 years, Barbieri said.

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