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VCU Receives Grant to Look for Indicators of Preterm Birth

By Anne Dreyfuss and Rachel Machacek/University Public Affairs

Virginia Commonwealth University has received a $378,026 grant from the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth, an initiative of Seattle Children’s, to look for predictors of preterm birth and other adverse pregnancy outcomes in pregnant women.

The two-year Human-Microbiome Alterations Predictive of Prematurity (HAPP) study will expand on two earlier studies under the National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project that looked at microbial communities in pregnant women and how changes in communities of bacteria, viruses and human cells affect women’s health.

“We’re looking at the microbiome as women go through pregnancy to try to determine what the roles of the microbiome are and its impact on the reproductive tract,” said Gregory Buck, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology at the VCU School of Medicine and director of the VCU Center for the Study of Biological Complexity.

Buck is leading the study with Jennifer Fettweis, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the VCU School of Medicine and the VCU Center for the Study of Biological Complexity. The team has been applying omics technologies to investigate both the human host cells and the microbiome.

Omics take a holistic view of the molecules that make up a cell, tissue or organism with the idea that these complex systems can be understood better if considered as a whole. In the HAPP study, Buck and Fettweis will expand upon earlier studies and deepen their analysis by also looking at global changes that occur in proteins and metabolites throughout pregnancy.

“With the high-throughput technologies we now have available, we’re able to look at things we couldn’t see before,” Fettweis said. “We think by using a systems-level approach, we have a better chance at finding biomarkers that might indicate which women are at risk for delivering preterm.”

There are already indicators of microbiome imbalances leading to preterm births in specific ethnic groups. One in six African-American babies are born too soon, and researchers now think that 40 to 50 percent of those preterm births have a component that is associated with an imbalance of microbiome in the vaginal community.

By identifying these imbalances and biomarkers, researchers could potentially move into treatment to help prevent babies from being born to soon.

Preterm birth is a global problem. According to the World Health Organization, 15 million babies are born premature every year, and more than 1 million premature babies die. Babies who do survive stay in the hospital longer and face health complications including cerebral palsy, developmental delays and respiratory issues.

Joining Buck and Fettweis on the research team are Adam Hawkridge, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Pharmaceutics, School of Pharmacy; Dayanjan S. Wijesinghe, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science, School of Pharmacy; and J. Paul Brooks, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Statistical Sciences and Operations Research, College of Humanities and Sciences.

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