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March 01, 2011— Ottawa, Ontario

A new Canadian research project could help to reduce the incidence of preterm — i.e. “premature” — births.

Despite steady improvements in maternal and infant care, preterm birth rates are rising around the world. In Canada, preterm births occur in about 7-8 percent of all births, yet account for more than 75 percent of all newborn deaths and 50 percent of lifelong newborn health problems, such as cerebral palsy. 

Many scientists believe that bacterial vaginosis — a common condition often mistaken for a yeast infection — may play an important role in causing preterm labour and delivery. But current methods for diagnosing this condition ignore the complexity of the vaginal microbial community.

NRC technician Carrie Haimanot poses beside a state-of-the-art DNA sequencer, which is being used to help characterize the vaginal microbial community.

NRC technician Carrie Haimanot poses beside a state-of-the-art DNA sequencer, which is being used to help characterize the vaginal microbial community.

To help improve diagnostic methods for bacterial vaginosis and other infections, a team of researchers, led by Dr. Deborah Money of the University of British Columbia, plans to characterize the “vaginal microbiome” — the composition of microbial communities within a woman’s reproductive system.  

Vaginal microbiome 

“In healthy women of reproductive age, the vaginal microbiome may contain hundreds of microorganisms,” says Dr. Sean Hemmingsen, an NRC researcher in Saskatoon and member of Dr. Money’s team. Since women’s health is linked to the types and numbers of these microorganisms, the team is examining how a healthy balance of microorganisms differs from an unhealthy balance.

Did you know?

A healthy balance of vaginal bacteria can protect women against infections such as herpes and HIV, whereas an unhealthy balance can increase the risk of infection in the uterus and fallopian tubes — and may ultimately result in cancer.

“The vaginal microbiome is a really significant issue for human health and reproduction,” says Dr. Hemmingsen. “We are using methods developed recently at NRC and other organizations to study the entire community of vaginal microorganisms, rather than focusing on just a few.” The ultimate goal is to develop new diagnostic tools and interventions to restore and maintain women’s health. 

This project is part of the Canadian Microbiome Initiative, which is contributing toward a global research effort to fully sequence the genetic information of microorganisms in the human body.   

  

Related information

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada
613-991-1431
media@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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