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Research Spotlight

VCU researchers study factors in preterm births

Several VCU investigators are focusing research efforts on health disparities among racial and ethnic populations, specifically looking at preterm births. Despite improvements to the nation’s general health, African-American women experience adverse pregnancy outcomes much more frequently than whites, resulting in infant death rates that are more than twice those of the white population.

Examining a variety of factors, including genetic and environmental, the research is funded through a P60 grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

“We have three main research themes: the identification of genetic factors that predict preterm births; the role of the vaginal microbiome in preterm birth; and the discovery of epigenetic and environmental factors that contribute to preterm birth,” said Jerome F. Strauss III, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine, who is leading the research on maternal and fetal genomes.

Kimberly Jefferson, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology and immunology, is leading the research on the role of infection within the vagina, and Timothy P. York, Ph.D., assistant professor of human and molecular genetics, is working on the epigenetic studies. The three themes are interrelated, according to Strauss, and the research teams are using a collaborative approach in studying this complex problem.

“This is the first major study to quantify the role of genetic factors and the environment in preterm birth in different populations. In addition, the vaginal microbiome is being comprehensively investigated so the role of specific microorganisms in preterm birth can be elucidated,” said Strauss.

A long-term aim is to determine how environmental factors, such as infection, interact with the genome to promote prematurity. The microbiome is a community of microorganisms, or microbes, inhabiting the human body. They inhabit almost every part of the human body, including on the skin, in the nose, mouth and gut, and in the urogenital area.  Sometimes they cause sickness, but most of the time the microorganisms live in harmony with their human hosts, even providing vital functions essential for human survival. Researchers at VCU are studying how microorganisms found in the vagina influence health and disease in women.

The research team at VCU has also identified a genetic variant that may account for the higher rates of premature delivery experienced by African-American women compared with European-American women. The findings may help physicians identify patients who might benefit from therapeutic interventions and preventative measures, including lifestyle change or medical therapy to reduce the risk of premature birth.

For more information about health disparity research, visit the VCU Center on Health Disparities website at

About VCU and the VCU Medical Center

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 222 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Sixty-six of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 13 schools and one college. MCV Hospitals and the health sciences schools of Virginia Commonwealth University compose the VCU Medical Center, one of the nation’s leading academic medical centers. For more, see




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