YOUR HEALTH: Could a bacteria be the cause of premature pregnancies?

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania – A team of scientists 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," said Jessica Ferber who has faced the premature loss of two babies.

One in ten mothers like Jessica 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.

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.

WARNING SIGNS: In most cases, preterm labor begins unexpectedly and the cause is usually unknown. Signs may be similar to regular labor, and include contractions every 10 minutes or more often, change in vaginal discharge such as leaking fluid or bleeding, lower backache, pelvic pressure or a feeling that the baby is pushing down, cramps that can feel like a menstrual period, abdominal cramps, and/or diarrhea. If you think you are experiencing preterm labor, it is important that you see a healthcare provider immediately. Your provider may be able to give you medicine so the baby will be healthier when it is born. Prevention remains a challenge because there are so many different causes, and they may be complex. However, pregnant women can take steps to lower risk by improving their general health. Quit smoking, avoid drugs and alcohol, seek prenatal care, and seek medical attention for any warning signs.  (Source: https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternalinfanthealth/pretermbirth.htm)

"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," said Jessica.

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

"What if the uterus happened second?"

But Dr. Michael Elovitz, Director of Penn Medicine's Maternal and Child Health Research Program, asked more questions than that.

"What if the cervico-vaginal 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?'."

And 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.

"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'."

NEW STUDY: Doctor Michal Elovitz at the University of Pennsylvania is studying how the pathways to preterm birth begin not in the uterus, but in the cervix. Working with a team of researchers, they are measuring the biomechanics of the cervix and responses it has to increasing 'load.' The cervix, as pregnancy progresses, must continually adjust to support the weight of the growing fetus. They are also studying how different bacterial species are associated with dramatic increase in preterm birth. If the results of the study are confirmed, doctors might have a way to determine who is at risk and intervene earlier with treatment to stop early delivery.   (Sources: http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/obgyn/research/documents/Penn-Theme-Area-2-011815E.pdf)

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.