American scientists have established a unique way to tell if an expectant woman is at risk of giving birth prematurely. By analyzing the community of bacteria living in the reproductive tract of the mother, scientists are able to determine the risk of a premature birth. Previously the relationship between bacteria and premature babies was unknown.
Trillions of microorganisms live on or in our bodies – the skin, the mouth, the vagina or the gut – in what researchers call our microbiome. Most of these microbes play fundamental roles in such important functions as robust immunity and good digestion, but they can contribute to health challenges if they get disrupted.
Scientists at Stanford University observed some of those microorganisms’ in various specific regions of the body on a weekly basis through 49 pregnancies of healthy women and established that those that went into premature labor had different patterns of vaginal microbes than other expectant mothers.
It is still unclear why, but the study provides a clue: the women at risk had fewer lactobacillus bacteria, a class of microbes long believed to be instrumental in maintaining vaginal health.
“We may have a new hook, a new angle to pursue against preterm birth”, said Dr David Relman, a microbiology expert who led the study at Stanford. “It’s possible that your microbiome could contribute to this pretty common and devastating condition,” he added.
Wider studies are necessary, in more diversified populations of expectant women, to verify the supposed link.
Dr Catherine Spong, a maternal-fetal medical expert t at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development noted that another fundamental question is whether the challenge is the lack of apparently defensive bugs or whatever microbes took their place.
According to Spong, the finding “is very compelling.” It is in line with some previous proof that “what our normal host flora is might be important in whether or not you’re at risk for certain conditions.”
Dr Joe Leigh Simpson, March of Dimes senior vice president, argues that if the study pans out, it may raise the likelihood of using probiotics to alter microbial environments in expectant women thought to be at risk.
The research, which was partially financed by the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Centre at Stanford, is available in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Many factors contribute to premature birth. Risk factors include pregnancy in women below the age of 17 years or above 40, expecting twins or more, and the woman’s own physical condition, such as being overweight or underweight, being diabetic or hypertensive, and whether she is a smoker.
Part of the latest development in U.S. premature birth statistics came from cutting down optional deliveries ahead of the mother’s due date, causing a notable drop in “late preemies,” or children born some weeks early.