Bacteria and Preterm Birth


PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Ivanhoe Newswire) — 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. Now, a team of scientists at the Penn Perelman School of Medicine 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,” Jessica Farber told Ivanhoe.

And yet, one in ten mothers like Jessica, who had two preemies, 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.

“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,” Farber explained.

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

“What if the uterus happened second? What if the cervicovaginal 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,” asked Michal Elovitz, MD, Director, Maternal and Child Health Research Center, Vice Chair of Translational Research at the University of Pennsylvania.

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.

Farber said, “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.”

Different bacterial species are associated with a dramatic increased risk of preterm birth. If the results of the study are confirmed, doctors might have a way to determine who’s at risk and intervene earlier with treatment to stop early delivery.

Contributors to this news report include: Donna Parker, Field Producer; Kirk Manson, Videographer; Cyndy McGrath, Supervising Producer; Gabriella Battistiol, Assistant Producer; Roque Correa, Editor.

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REPORT:         MB #4326

BACKGROUND: A baby is considered preterm when he or she is born before the 37 week mark of pregnancy. In 2015, the CDC estimated preterm birth affected about 1 in every 10 infants born in the United States. There is a higher risk of the baby being seriously disabled or dying when it is born too early. In 2013, about one third of infant deaths were related to preterm causes. Babies who do survive may require monitoring, therapy and special treatment on a case by case basis. They may have a number of problems from feeding and breathing difficulties, cerebral palsy, developmental delays, hearing impairment or vison problems. It may also take an emotional toll as well as be a financial burden for families.

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.


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.


Michal Elovitz, MD)

People interested in learning more about the clinical trials should check out:

Or call the outpatient research line at 215-964-8477


Katie Delach

If this story or any other Ivanhoe story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at


Doctor Q and A

Read the entire Doctor Q&A for Michal Elovitz

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