Chemicals accumulated in the vagina can contribute to spontaneous preterm labor

Chemicals accumulated in the vagina can contribute to spontaneous preterm labor

Chemicals that accumulate in the vagina, potentially from personal care products, may contribute to spontaneous preterm labor, according to a new study by researchers at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

A study of 232 pregnant women found that a handful of non-biological chemicals previously found in beauty and hygiene products are strongly associated with preterm birth.

Our findings suggest that we need to take a closer look at whether common environmental exposures actually cause preterm births, and if so, where those exposures come from. The good news is that if these chemicals are to blame, it may be possible to reduce these potentially harmful exposures.”

Tal Korem, PhD, study co-leader, Assistant Professor in the Mathematical Genomics Program and the Departments of Systems Biology and Obstetrics and Gynecology at Columbia University

The study was published on January 12 Microbiology of nature.

Preterm birth, birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy, is the most common cause of death in newborns and can lead to a range of lifelong health problems. Two-thirds of preterm births occur spontaneously, but despite extensive research, there are no methods to predict or prevent spontaneous preterm birth.

Several studies suggest that an imbalance in the vaginal microbiome plays a role in preterm labor and other problems during pregnancy. However, researchers have not been able to reproducibly link specific populations of microorganisms with adverse pregnancy outcomes.

The research team, co-led by Korem and Maayan Levy, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania, decided to take a broader view of the vaginal microenvironment by looking at its metabolome. A metabolome is the complete set of small molecules found in a particular biological niche, including metabolites produced by local cells and microorganisms and molecules that originate from external sources. “The metabolome can be viewed as a functional readout of the ecosystem as a whole,” says Korem. “Microbiome profiling can tell us who the microbes are; metabolomics brings us closer to understanding what the microbes are doing.”

In the current study, researchers measured more than 700 different metabolites in the second trimester metabolome of 232 pregnant women, including 80 pregnancies that ended prematurely.

The study found more metabolites that were significantly higher in women who gave birth early than in women who gave birth at full term.

“Several of these metabolites are chemicals that are not produced by humans or microbes—what we call xenobiotics,” says Korem. “These include diethanolamine, ethyl beta glucoside, tartrate, and ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid. Although we did not identify the source of these xenobiotics in our participants, they can all be found in cosmetics and hygiene products.”

Algorithm predicts premature birth

Using machine learning models, the team also developed an algorithm based on metabolite levels that can predict preterm birth with good accuracy, potentially paving the way for early diagnosis.

Although the predictions were more accurate than models based on microbiome data and maternal characteristics (such as age, BMI, race, history of preterm birth, and previous births), the new model still needs refinement and further validation before it can be used in the clinic. .

Despite the current limitations, says Korem, “our results show that vaginal metabolites have the potential to predict months in advance which women are likely to deliver early.”


Columbia University Irving Medical Center

Link to journal:

Kindschuh, WF, et al. (2023) Preterm birth is associated with xenobiotics and predicted by the vaginal metabolome. Microbiology of nature.

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