Professor Phil Bennett and colleagues are undertaking studies to understand the contribution of the vaginal microbiome to preterm labour and delivery. Preterm birth, which is defined as births before 37 weeks of gestation and occurs in some 10% of pregnancies, is a leading cause of neonatal mortality and morbidity. Evidence suggests that although there can be many causes, microorganisms (leading to infection and inflammation) may play a significant role.

We know that changes in bacterial species occur in women during the course of a pregnancy. However, we need to know more about the “microbiome” and the changes that are associated with increased risk for preterm labour and delivery in order to provide treatments and reduce the incidence of premature births.

The microbiome can be influenced by genetics, nutrition, environment, lifestyle, medications, and other host factors. The vaginal microbiome varies widely among healthy, asymptomatic women of reproductive age, and studies have additionally shown that the vaginal bacterial composition varies among different ethnic groups. Studies of the vaginal microbiome in pregnant and non-pregnant women revealed that the vaginal bacteria naturally undergo marked decrease in species diversity as the pregnancy progresses. The biological significance of these findings as well as their role in conferring risk for, or alternatively protection from, intra-uterine bacterial invasion leading to preterm labor and delivery requires further investigation.

Research is underway to discover interventions that shift a woman’s microbiome towards a more protective state in order to reduce the risk for preterm birth.

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