Mothers at risk of premature birth could be identified far sooner in pregnancy than current tests allow, by looking for specific bacteria and chemicals in their cervicovaginal fluid, according to a new study from our research centre at King’s College London.
Predicting and preventing premature birth
60,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK each year, which leaves them vulnerable to lifelong health problems and is a leading cause of death in new-borns. Reasons for premature birth are often unclear, making it hard for doctors to predict and prevent, but our scientists are investigating clues in the mothers' vaginal microbiome (tiny living organisms that can affect health, like bacteria and viruses) and metabolome (small molecules naturally created by the body, like sugars and acids).
Previous research suggests that infection and inflammation can shorten and weaken the cervix (the neck of the womb), which normally lengthens and produces chemicals during pregnancy to protect the baby before shortening and softening for labour and birth – so if this happens earlier in pregnancy, it puts the baby at risk of infection and premature birth.
As part of our ongoing INSIGHT study, the team at our London Research Centre has uncovered specific bacteria and chemicals in mothers' cervicovaginal fluid that can act as warning signs, so that infection or inflammation can be found and treated early to stop babies from being born too soon.
Our latest research findings
Our premature birth experts studied patient data from 4 UK hospitals on 346 mothers, including 60 who gave birth prematurely (at or before 37 weeks). Researchers analysed cervicovaginal samples taken at 10-15 weeks pregnant, and again at 16-23 weeks, then grouped women by their typical communities of bacteria and biochemicals. They checked this against cervical length measurements (the current standard NHS assessment for premature birth risk) and followed up to see which babies came early.
Findings published today in the Journal of Clinical Investigation show for the first time that a specific type of bacteria (Lactobacillus acidophilus) can limit the risk of early premature birth – a discovery that we hope will lead to new preventative therapies.
A combination of bacteria (Lactobacillus crispatus and L. acidophilus) and biochemicals (glucose, aspartate and calcium) was linked to birth at or before 34 weeks, while 7 different metabolites (leucine, tyrosine, aspartate, lactate, betaine, acetate and calcium) were associated with birth at or before 37 weeks. Crucially, these findings were equally significant in tests from the first and second trimester; this means that vulnerable mothers and babies could be accurately identified much sooner than current tests allow, and then benefit from medical or surgical treatments that aren’t possible in late pregnancy.
The research also reveals interesting ethnic differences in the vaginal microbiome: Black mothers were more likely to have high levels of certain antibacterial proteins (elafin and cathelicidin) linked to cervicovaginal inflammation and therefore premature birth. The association is not significant enough to explain the increased rates of premature birth among Black mothers, and could reflect other environmental and social differences, which this study wasn't able to investigate. Researchers concluded that larger studies with stronger data are needed, and as well as continuing our INSIGHT work in the UK, they're currently running a more detailed project across 3 African countries to better understand these issues.
Why this matters and what next
Study author Andrew Shennan OBE, who is Professor of Obstetrics at King's College London and runs our Preterm Birth Surveillance Clinic at St Thomas’ Hospital, explained: “Premature birth is very hard to predict, so doctors have to err on the side of caution and mothers deemed to be at risk often don’t actually have their babies early, putting undue strain on everyone involved. My team has developed preterm birth prediction tools that are very accurate later in pregnancy, like fetal fibronectin tests – but at that stage, you can only manage the risks, not stop it from happening. The sooner we can find out who’s at risk, the more we can do to keep mothers and babies safe.”
“With 60,000 babies born prematurely each year in the UK, there’s a real and urgent need for better ways to predict and prevent preterm birth. This new study has not only uncovered warning signs that could be used to develop new tests, but also a possible treatment which could make pregnancy safer for the most vulnerable, so this new avenue of research has really exciting potential for clinical practice.” - Jane Brewin, Tommy's CEO
Lead academic on the study Rachel Tribe, Professor of Maternal and Perinatal Sciences at King’s College London, added: "With so many factors in play, it’s unlikely that testing for the same single bacteria species will predict premature birth in every mother, but we now have a panel of bacteria and metabolites that could be useful. In particular, tests during early pregnancy for Lactobacillus crispatus and L. acidophilus could provide reassurance to mothers who would otherwise be unduly worried, and help those who need it get specialist care as soon as possible. After 5 years of work on this study, we’re delighted to have this greater understanding of how the vaginal environment can influence preterm birth risk.”
Find out more about our research to understand and prevent premature birth