Researchers at the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, have discovered a connection between certain bacteria, thinning membranes of the placental sac, and premature birth. It’s unknown at this time whether the bacterial presence is cause or effect but continued research may lead to new bacterial screening procedures to prevent preterm premature rupture of the membranes (PPROM), or water breaking too soon in the pregnancy.

Almost one third of all premature deliveries are caused by early membrane rupture. When the water breaks before contractions start, early labor can be triggered but breakage doesn’t always cause contractions to start.

The research team, led by Amy Murtha, an author for the study and Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Duke, examined membrane tissue samples of 48 women who had just had babies. The women comprised three different categories:

  • Birth due to PPROM
  • Preterm birth due to other reasons
  • Full-term birth

The same bacteria were found in all tissue samples under study but the highest concentration of it was in the samples where the membrane was the thinnest at the point of rupture. This bacterial colonization was especially dense in the PPROM samples.

Murtha describes the research as “several steps away” from knowing if the bacteria is the cause of the thinning of the fetal membrane or an effect of thinning for other reasons. Once this relationship is better understood, Murtha says, “We then might be able to treat affected women with antibiotics and reduce their risk for PPROM.”

She further states that finding the answer to the cause-or-effect question may provide “opportunities to explore potential targeted therapeutic interventions” which currently are lacking in the field of obstetrics.

Dr. Patrick O’Brien, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London, says in the online edition of the BBC Health News that bacterial infection is known to cause some cases of PPROM but “what we really need to know now is to understand the detailed mechanism of how bacteria cause the waters to break.”

Full details of the Duke study can be found online at the PLoS ONE website. PLoS is the Public Library of Science.

Source: Murtha, Amy P., et al. “Bacteria Localization and Chorion Thinning among Preterm Premature Rupture of Membranes.” PLoS ONE. Jan 8, 2014. Web. Jan 16, 2014.