VCU experts to contribute new data highlighting the role of the human microbiome in women’s health

VCU project looks at role of the microbiome in preterm birth and neonatal health

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The Integrative Human Microbiome Project Research Consortium, led by three cross-disciplinary teams from Virginia Commonwealth University, the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, and Stanford University, is collecting multi-omic data about the human microbiome, which contains the billions of microbes that live in or on the human body.

The goal of the project is to integrate modern “omic” technologies (e.g., genomics, metagenomics, metatranscriptomics, proteomics and immunoproteoimics, and metabolomics) to clarify the complex interactions of microbial species within and on humans, and elucidate their roles in human health and disease. The project is part of the National Institutes of Health Human Microbiome Project, now in its second phase.

In a new report published in the September 2014 issue of Cell Host & Microbe, researchers from each team outline three large-scale longitudinal studies focused on pregnancy and preterm birth, inflammatory bowel disease and Type 2 diabetes, and describe the data sets being generated.

The complex multidimensional data sets will be integrated informatically in attempts to identify relationships between the activities of the human body and its microbial colonizers. This extensive data-gathering program is also designed to provide a community resource, and therefore will be made available to other investigators through public databases.

During the first phase of NIH’s Human Microbiome Project, the VCU team studied how microorganisms found in the female urogenital tract influence women’s health and disease. That work led directly to the current study focused on pregnancy and preterm birth.

“Our objective is to identify the microbial components that contribute to problems in pregnancy and preterm birth,” said Gregory Buck, Ph.D., director of the VCU Center for the Study of Biological Complexity and the principal investigator for the microbiome project at VCU.

“Surprisingly, up to 50 percent or more of the bacterial species that we observe in our samples have not been previously cultured, and many have never been seen before. Our work has led to the identification, culturing, sequencing and characterization of several of these previously unrecognized bacteria, at least some of which seem to be associated with preterm birth and other issues of health of the female urogenital tract. The current study will significantly expand on these findings.”

According to Buck, at least one out of every 10 pregnancies culminates in preterm birth with all of the short-term and long-term implications for the neonate. He said that the annual financial costs of this are estimated at more than $26.2 billion in the United States, and the intangible emotional and psychosocial implications are staggering. Although it is clear that a significant fraction of these preterm births involve a microbial cause, the specific taxa involved remain unknown.

In the other two studies funded in the second phase of NIH’s Human Microbiome Project, researchers from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard are contributing data about the roles of the gut microbiome in inflammatory bowel disease; and researchers from Stanford University and the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine are generating data from their investigations about how the microbiome impacts Type 2 diabetes.

In addition to Buck, co-principal investigators on the grant at VCU are Jerome F. Strauss III, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine; Kimberly K Jefferson, Ph.D., from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology; and Jennifer M. Fettweis, Ph.D., project director. Women participants are being recruited from VCU’s women’s clinics and hospitals, and from the GAPPS Repository of the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth at Seattle Children’s Hospital, which is directed by Craig E. Rubens, M.D. Ph.D.

VCU’s projects were launched in 2009 with initial support from NIH’s Human Microbiome Project. The Human Microbiome Project is an 8-year NIH effort started in 2008 with total funding to date of $197 million.

The VCU project is supported by grants from NIH Common Fund grant number 8U54DK102556, with additional co-funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Office of Research on Women's Health, NIDDK, and Office of Dietary Supplements.

For more information about Human Microbiome Project, visit

Read more about the second phase Integrative Human Microbiome Project at

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