A team of Canadian researchers are examining the delicate balance of bacteria and viruses in women's bodies in order to optimize women's health through their lives.
Dr. Deborah Money at the Women's Health Research Institute in Vancouver is leading the initiative, called the Vaginal Microbiome Project, which will examine the communities of microorganisms (bacteria and viruses) in the vagina in order to determine what a healthy bacterial balance is for women. "We know that a healthy balance is critical to preventing vaginal infections, protecting against sexually transmitted infections and preventing pregnancy loss and preterm birth." says Dr. Money. "To date, we have not been able to study this ecosystem adequately because it is difficult or impossible to grow some of the bacteria in the lab, and we currently have poor methods of assessing the population of microbes."
Genomics is making it possible to crack this mystery. Thanks to the latest tools, Dr. Money's team can rapidly sequence up to hundreds of thousands of the bacteria. "What's important about this approach is that we are not looking at a single bacteria in isolation," says Money. "We are able to look at whole communities and how they interact with each other, which is critical to understanding how a woman keeps healthy, and to identifying when something is going wrong with her reproductive system."
The project is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), through their Canadian Microbiome Initiative, and Genome BC, each contributing $1,745,341 and $581,781 respectively for a total of $2,327,122 over five years. "This project puts Canadian researchers on the forefront of microbiome research," says Dr. Alan Winter, President and CEO of Genome BC. "The fact that the research team includes people from all over Canada is a testament to how effective collaboration is in addressing key health issues."
One of the major consequences of abnormal bacterial balance in the vagina is preterm birth. Preterm birth rates are increasing for Canadian women, now at rates of almost 8%, and are responsible for 70% of newborn deaths and 50% of long-term adverse health consequences for infants. This project will study the bacterial populations associated with preterm birth and develop diagnostic tests in order to prevent preterm birth. "Studies to prevent preterm birth are of importance not only for Canadian women but for women worldwide where preterm birth has even more serious consequences," says Money.
The project will be lead by Dr. Money at University of British Columbia, based at the Women's Health Research Institute, with her co-leads, Drs. Janet Hill at the University of Saskatchewan, Dr. Sean Hemminsgen at the National Research Council, Dr. Gregor Reid at the University of Western Ontario, and Dr. Alan Bocking at the University of Toronto and many other collaborators across Canada.