Continuing to assess the vaginal microbiome, Bryan White, PhD, director of the Mayo Clinic and Illinois Alliance for Technology-Based Healthcare and professor of animal sciences at Illinois, and Dr. Douglas Creedon, obstetrician and gynecologist at Mayo Clinic, led a team of scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Mayo Clinic, and the J. Craig Venter Institute in an investigation of vaginal microbiomes over the course of uncomplicated pregnancies. Results of the study were published in the
journal PLOS One.
Titled “Pregnancy’s Stronghold on the Vaginal Microbiome,” the article represents one of the first research collaborations initiated by the Mayo Clinic and Illinois Alliance, applying cutting-edge technology to understand the fundamental problems in maternal-fetal health.
“This work would never have been completed without the Alliance. It took the collaboration and expertise of the team at U of I who know the microbiome and the clinical perspective and material from Mayo to make this project a reality. I think it has been a great example of the power and potential of such cooperation and hope the work continues to flourish,” said Creedon.
This research is expected to have a great impact on obstetrical and perinatal care, as it has established a baseline for a “normal” vaginal microbiome during pregnancy. Knowing what is normal sets the stage for further investigation of whether the microbiome has a causal role in pregnancy complications, such as preterm birth.
As Dr. Marina Walther-Antonio, lead author on the paper, explained, “This study is significant for obstetrics. It provides a comparative platform researchers studying pregnancy complications suspected of having a microbial cause, like preterm
labor, can use for identifying potential microbiome dysbiosis associated with the vaginal microbiome during pregnancy.”
In this longitudinal study, researchers found that in uncomplicated pregnancies, the vaginal microbiome is made up of few bacterial species and is typically dominated by one or two Lactobacillus species. And unlike non-pregnant women whose vaginal microbiomes fluctuate with the menstrual cycle, a pregnant woman’s microbiome stays relatively stable from the first trimester until the time of delivery. Walther-Antonio went on to say that, “any deviations from this profile may be interpreted as indicative of potential microbial dysbiosis and possible increased risk for complication.”
The team’s findings did not come without hurdles to jump. “One of the greatest challenges we faced was the recruitment of patients to participate in the study. These studies take a very long time since the pregnancy and sample collection take nine months to complete, and not all of the subjects become pregnant at the same time. Preterm births only occur in about 20 percent of pregnancies, so we also needed larger participant groups for statistical validation,” said White.
The authors plan to continue their collaboration, with the goal of finding biomarkers in participants who deviated from the baseline microbiome. They anticipate these biomarkers may be used to diagnose and treat potential pregnancy complications before becoming clinically symptomatic.
This work received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Mayo Clinic’s Center for Individualized Medicine, and the Mayo Clinic and Illinois Alliance for Technology-Based Healthcare.