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Dr. Jose Villar, Professor of Perinatal Medicine at the University of Oxford's Nuffield Department of Women’s & Reproductive Health, has been honoured with the prestigious 2024 March of Dimes Agnes Higgins Award in Maternal-Fetal Nutrition.

The March of Dimes award recognises the achievements of Dr. Villar and the team at the Nuffield Department of Women’s & Reproductive Health, and highlights the innovative research in this area which has influenced the field of maternal-fetal nutrition globally.


The award recognises Dr Villar as the scientific force behind the first set of international standards for fetal growth, newborn size and body composition, and postnatal growth of preterm infants, which are being widely adopted around the world. The standards present a universal blueprint for healthy growth and development from early gestation to 2 years of age. They show that maternal nutrition, health status, diet and environmental exposures largely dictate whether a fetus or a baby’s growth trajectory leans toward adequate or abnormal directions. 

In the past Dr. Villar collaborated with peers to uncover the link between calcium consumption and the risks of preeclampsia and preterm birth. During his tenure at the WHO, he oversaw the largest randomized controlled trial investigating the impact of calcium supplementation on preventing these conditions. Published in 2006, the trial results prompted the WHO to recommend calcium supplementation for women with inadequate mineral levels.

Arguably, Dr. Villar’s most important contribution came in 2014 when he and a team of colleagues published the most ambitious and influential work of his career: a comprehensive set of international standards on fetal growth, newborn size and body composition, and preterm postnatal growth, which also included maternal weight gain, fundal height and hemoglobin benchmarks during pregnancy. Many of these standards have been widely adopted, including by the WHO and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which endorsed the newborn head circumference standard to assess microcephaly during the Zika epidemic. 

This work has continued apace, and most recently led to a 2023 Nature paper, the Oxford group he leads also produced the first digital atlas describing the normal maturation of the fetal brain and the importance on future neurodevelopment.


What March of Dimes said…

March of Dimes Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Emre Seli said “It is difficult to overstate the value of Dr. Villar’s contributions to maternal and infant nutrition and its impact on early development.  

“His global growth standards are novel and comprehensive, his work on the benefits of prenatal calcium to fight hypertension and early labor are fundamental, and his ongoing work on the adequacy of breast milk for preterm infants to prevent future obesity is crucial.

“Add to that, Dr. Villar cares - he cares about mothers and babies and is a heartfelt advocate for creating health equities that give pregnant women choice and allow them to make the diet, nutrition and lifestyle choices that will benefit their babies for years to come. He is a perfect reflection of the spirit of this award.”


What next?

Dr. Villar is currently advocating breast milk as the primary feeding option for premature infants, and emphasising its ability to meet the nutritional requirements of uncomplicated preterm infants from birth to six months. Dr. Villar's research highlights breast milk's role in promoting healthy growth and development in preterm infants, while also potentially preventing excessive weight gain and future obesity.

He is also working with scientists at the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center (PRC) at Stanford University to use machine learning models to find associations between patterns of fetal growth, brain structures and maternal characteristics on the motor and cognitive abilities of children at 2 years old.

 Dr. Villar said “This award is truly a culmination of decades of work trying to figure out how maternal prenatal nutrition and other exposures affect the short- and long-term health of her offspring, and I’m very humbled”.  

This work could never have been possible without the support of many colleagues in Oxford and around the world with whom I have the privilege to work with. All of us serve a greater purpose that just informing mothers about what to eat or doctors which growth standard to use”.

“We look at a woman’s pregnancy and what happens to her through a social, economic and cultural lens, and work toward equities that allow all mothers to have the opportunity to achieve nutritional goals that set babies up for lifelong success. That is the challenge ahead, and I couldn’t be prouder to continue it alongside March of Dimes.”


Presentation of the award

The accolade will be bestowed upon Dr. Villar at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) in Toronto, Canada on May 4.


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