VCU receives NIH grant to examine how vaginal microbes influence pregnancy in women

Findings may lead to ways to improve health and well-being of pregnant women and babies

Share this story

Virginia Commonwealth University has received a $7.4 million federal grant to study how microorganisms found in the vagina influence health and disease in women and their babies during pregnancy, labor and birth.

The Office of the Director at the National Institutes of Health awarded VCU the three-year grant to pursue work that ultimately could lead to interventions that promote healthier pregnancies and births.

VCU is one of three teams across the country being awarded a NIH Common Fund grant this year to study the human microbiome. The project is a spinoff of VCU’s ongoing $8 million National Institutes of Health Common Fund project that is characterizing the impact of microflora of the female urogenital tract on women’s health and well-being. In addition to VCU, the other awardees include a joint project by research teams at Stanford University and Washington University in St. Louis and a second joint project between The Broad Institute and the Harvard School of Public Health.

Preterm birth has become the leading cause of infant mortality and morbidity in the United States, with health care for newborns with complications approaching $26 billion, according to an article from the National Academies Press titled “Preterm Birth: Causes, Consequences, and Prevention.”

Scientific evidence suggests that the microbiome of an expectant mother plays a key role in morbidity related to pregnancy, birth outcome and the life of the newborn afterward, but those factors have yet to be defined. Preterm birth, low-birth weight and necrotizing enterocolitis, a gastrointestinal disease affecting many premature infants, are just some of the health issues that have been linked to the maternal microbiome. VCU researchers hope to learn how the microbes that colonize the female urogenital tract impact the health of the expectant mother and the birth of a healthy baby.

“We hope to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the impact of the microbial species that colonize the vagina and other relevant body sites on the health and well-being of pregnant women and their babies,” said principal investigator Gregory Buck, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology in the VCU School of Medicine and director of the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity at VCU.

“In particular, we hope to identify the roles of these microbial colonizers in adverse outcomes of pregnancy, including but not limited to preterm labor and preterm birth. By understanding the roles these organisms play in the health of pregnant women, we hope it will lead to better, more efficient prenatal and postnatal care. Ultimately, we hope the work will lend to a reduction in the incidence of preterm birth and infant morbidity and mortality.”

The new project, termed MOMS-PI for “Multi-omic Microbiome Study: Pregnancy Initiative,” will follow approximately 2,000 women longitudinally through pregnancy and delivery. Samples will be taken to generate multi-omic data sets using next-generation DNA sequencing, high-accuracy mass spectrometry, innovative interactomics tools and other high-throughput technologies. Analysis of these multi-omic data sets using cutting edge computational bioinformatics strategies will generate a dynamic vision of the intricate relationships between these complex microbial communities and the human body and help the team determine the impact of the vaginal microbiome on the incidence of normal, preterm or otherwise abnormal births.

In addition to Buck, the project will be co-led by Jerome F. Strauss III, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine, and Kimberly K. Jefferson, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology and immunology in the VCU School of Medicine.

The Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (GAPPS), an initiative of Seattle Children’s, will assist the VCU team in recruitment of participants in this project. Craig E. Rubens, M.D., Ph.D., executive director of GAPPS, will lead the Seattle-based work.

This project leverages the work of the previously funded NIH-project, titled “The Vaginal Microbiome: Disease, Genetics and the Environment (VaHMP),” which gave rise to the interdisciplinary Vaginal Microbiome Consortium at VCU, which includes nearly 50 investigators from more than a dozen departments.

“The MOMS-PI project, the VaHMP and other similar projects across the globe are generating colossal biomedical and multi-omic data sets,” Buck said. “This in turn is driving the so-called ‘Big Data’ initiative in the United States, which demands the extensive bioinformatics and computational infrastructure and know-how now available at VCU.”

The grant is one of several microbiome-related projects supported through the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research and is part of the Human Microbiome Project taking place at institutions across the country. This study formally titled: “A Multi-omic Analysis of the Vaginal Microbiome during Pregnancy,” is supported by grant number, 1U54DE023786.