The specific type of bacteria present in a woman's vagina and cervix may increase the risk of premature birth (delivery of the baby before 37 weeks of pregnancy), finds a new study from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
The study results may help to prevent preterm birth and may eliminate the "bad" bacteria or increase the "protective" bacteria.
The research study was presented at the Society of Maternal Fetal Medicine's 37th Annual Pregnancy Meeting in Las Vegas, and has received the March of Dimes Award for Best Abstract on Prematurity.
"For the first time in 8 years, the number of pre-term babies in the United States actually increased in 2016, and unfortunately, there are underlying causes that doctors still don't understand," said lead author Michal Elovitz, MD, a professor Obstetrics & Gynecology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the Maternal and Child Health Research Center at Penn, and a co-investigator for the March of Dimes' Prematurity Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "Decoding the causes of prematurity has been a riddle that's stumped researchers and clinicians for years, but our new study is finally shedding some light on a path toward offering treatment to women we can identify as being at-risk."
In the study, researchers examined vaginal swabs from a sample of 2,000 pregnant women, taken at three distinct points in pregnancy, to determine the microbial colonies that were present. Analysis showed that among the many specific types of bacteria, some - such as certain bifidobacterium and lactobacillus species - actually lowered the risk of spontaneous preterm birth, while others - specifically several anaerobic bacteria - significantly increased the risk.
Elovitz says the new findings are the result of a multidisciplinary team of experts from immunology and microbiology, who came together and took a new approach to the issue, examining the cervix and vagina instead of limiting the scope of their study to the uterus, as conventional wisdom would suggest. The authors say more research is needed to confirm the findings, but if proven, it could mean treatments targeting "bad" cervical bacteria, or replenishing the "good" bacteria could be used to prevent premature birth in the immediate future.