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U of L Researchers Get $11 Million Federal Grant To Study Microbiome

Heidelberger Life-Science Lab/Wikimedia Commons

The University of Louisville is the recipient of a huge and prestigious federal grant to establish an interdisciplinary program to research bacteria.

U of L will get $11.2 million over the next five years to study both the good and bad bacteria that either help or hurt our bodies’ ability to ward off disease, otherwise known as the microbiome.

Some of the grant money, given by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, will go to the dentistry and medicine schools. Researchers there plan on exploring the bodies' bacteria in relationship to arthritis, Parkinson's and other diseases. Other funds are going to the U of L School of Engineering to research a new treatment for a condition called bacterial vaginosis.

On any given day, vaginosis is a condition that affects thirty percent of women – it’s sort of like a yeast infection, but instead of yeast, it’s a type of bacteria called gardnerella.

It affects the female reproductive tract.

And it can be serious: for pregnant women, vaginosis can cause pre-term birth, low birth weight and fetal infections.

The symptoms are similar to a yeast infection – itching, odor, discharge. And it’s usually treated with antibiotics. But U of L bioengineering professor Jill Steinbach-Rankins said these only work about 70 percent of the time. In addition, over time the bacteria become resistant.

“After a time if women keep taking the antibiotic it gets harder and harder to get rid of it," Steinbach-Rankins said.

So, over the next five years Steinbach-Rankins will get about $1 million from this federal grant to research a solution. Currently, women can take probiotics orally, but that only goes so far. They’re metabolized through digestion, so by the time the probiotics reach the vaginal tract, they’re not as potent. This is where Steinbach-Rankins' research comes in. There’s a way to create little fibers by spinning different chemicals together:

“You form these structures that almost look like a piece of paper, but in the micro level they’re little fibers that can administer active agents," Steinbach-Rankins said.

Probiotics can be attached to these tiny little pieces of paper, which Steinbach-Rankins said will be delivered 'locally,' or directly to the vaginal tract.

“We envision a tampon like device that women could insert that would promote colonization," Steinbach-Rankins said.

Steinbach-Rankins' team will eventually move from testing the method in petri dishes to testing it on mice. And if that’s successful — if the mice with the bacterial infections are cured because of the probiotic tampon method — then there’s a chance there could be clinical trials. And eventually doctors might prescribe this new method to treat women with bacterial vaginosis.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.

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