Every year, 15 million babies are born premature. Over 75% of preterm births (PTBs) are termed spontaneous (sPTB) resulting in parturition at early gestational time points without clear causes. Our lack of understanding of the mechanisms and overall pathogenesis that promotes sPTB results in limited successful interventions. While uterine contractility and cervical remodeling appear to be obligatory processes in parturition, premature triggers of these processes remain poorly elucidated. Recent studies reveal close associations between cervicovaginal (CV) microbial communities and the occurrence of sPTB. In particular, we recently studied a cohort of 2000 pregnant women and assessed the CV microbial communities, metabolic and immune responses early in pregnancy, providing strong evidence that colonization with specific bacterial taxa, specific metabolic profiles, and local immune responses were strongly associated with sPTB. However, to develop preventive or therapeutic strategies, understanding the cause of sPTB is essential. We speculate that interplay between the CV microbial communities, local immune response and the cervical and vaginal epithelial barriers induce premature cervical remodeling and initiate sPTB. The overall goal of this study is to define how specific CV bacteria interact with vaginal and epithelial cells in clinically relevant in vitro and in vivo models and to understand how those interactions modify tissue remodeling and biomechanics of the pregnant cervix, driving sPTB. We propose a process whereby bacterial taxa that are highly associated with sPTB in humans provoke exfoliation of the vaginal epithelium. This process promotes epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) from both vaginal and cervical epithelial cells. While activation of EMT prevents the ascension of these bacteria, a tradeoff is that EMT fosters breakdown of the extracellular matrix in the cervical tissue, triggering premature cervical remodeling and sPTB. Therefore, our central hypothesis is that specific bacteria, such as Gardnerella vaginalis (G.vaginalis), promote EMT of the vaginal and cervical epithelial barrier which alters the structure and function of the pregnant cervix, leading to sPTB, even in the absence of ascending infection (above the cervix). This paradigm-shifting hypothesis will be tested through a series of in vitro and in vivo experiments. This proposal will first address whether ascension of bacteria into the uterus is actually necessary for PTB to occur; these studies have the potential to reframe our scientific and therapeutic approach to PTB. We will then demonstrate how bacteria induce EMT in CV epithelial barriers and how EMT might promote premature cervical remodeling. Unique to this proposal, we will provide quantitative assessment of the pregnant cervix, in terms of structure and function, in a mouse model of PTB. A multidisciplinary team adds rigor to our work by applying novel concepts and techniques to the study of sPTB. These studies will provide insight as to new and focused therapeutic targets to limit or prevent sPTB and will significantly advance this field.

Public Health Relevance

Leveraging recent and novel findings from our human studies and mouse models, we propose an innovative approach to study sPTB. With a multidisciplinary team of scientists, we will utilize both in vitro and in vivo models to comprehensively analyze how cervicovaginal bacteria induce EMT and cervical remodeling. These studies will reveal key steps in the pathogenesis of sPTB. Findings from this proposal will provide insight as to new therapeutic targets to limit or prevent sPTB and in this manner, will fundamentally advance this field.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Research Project (R01)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1)
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Ilekis, John V
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University of Pennsylvania
Obstetrics & Gynecology
Schools of Medicine
United States
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