Healthcast: Bacteria and preterm birth

Doctors say cervical bacteria could be to blame

Premature birth is the number one killer of babies in the U.S. Infants born sooner than 37 weeks can face a lifetime of neurological and physical problems. Now, a team of scientists at the Penn Perelman School of Medicine has discovered bacteria that might hold the key to reducing the more than 15 million premature births each year.

 

“Going home without your baby I think is one of the most difficult things that a mother can do,” Jessica Farber said.

 

And yet, one in ten mothers like Jessica, who had two preemies, leave their babies in intensive care. Fortunately her children, now ages three and ten, are healthy. But, as a nurse herself; Jessica knew exactly what preterm birth could cause.

 

“Infants who are preterm are at risk for lung disease and eye problems and a number of neurological problems and a number of other physical conditions,” Farber explained.

 

For years, doctors assumed the trouble started in the uterus. But this researcher led a study on the cervix, asking the question …

 

“What if the uterus happened second? What if the cervicovaginal space which is open to the environment looks like the gut. What if it acts like the gut. So, we started asking, what are the microbial communities there? What is the immune response there? How does that change the properties and the structure of the cervix,” asked Michal Elovitz, MD, Director, Maternal and Child Health Research Center, Vice Chair of Translational Research at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

Understanding how that cervical bacteria works could help decrease the number of preterm births.

 

Jessica’s children are thriving now, but their preterm births required constant monitoring, doctor visits and therapy.

 

Farber said, “I look at them in awe every day and I think most parents do that to some degree. But I look at them and think, oh my gosh, we’ve come so far.”

 

Different bacterial species are associated with a dramatic increased risk of preterm birth. If the results of the study are confirmed, doctors might have a way to determine who’s at risk and intervene earlier with treatment to stop early delivery.


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