Scientists at UT Southwestern Medical Center have identified the substance hyaluronon (HA) protects against premature births caused by infection. Senior author Dr. Mala Mahendroo said, "We found that HA, a critical substance made by the body, is required to allow the epithelial lining of the reproductive tract to serve as the first line of defense against bacterial infections. Because of this action, HA offers cervical protection against the bacterial infections that cause 25 to 40 percent of preterm births in women."
According to the World Health Organization, preterm birth from infection is the leading cause of infant mortality in many countries, with as many as 1.09 million children under age 5 dying from direct complications of being born prematurely, meaning before the 37th week of pregnancy.
Hyaluronon is a natural substance found in several tissues, and is both a lubricant and a beneficial component of eyes, joints, and skin. It has been known to play a role in increasing the cervix's flexibility during the birth process. However, mice studies have revealed that HA is not essential for increased cervical pliability during late pregnancy. But, it plays an important barrier role in epithelial cells of the lower reproductive tract and thus protects against infection-related preterm birth.
Dr. Yucel Akgul, first author of the study said, "HA plays a crucial role in the epithelial barrier as well as the cervix's mucus. Next steps include determining the mechanism by which HA affects cervical protection against infection."
The study appears in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.