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$2.7 Million Grant Lets USF Nursing Conduct 'Gut Check' on Premature Infants

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The University of South Florida College of Nursing has received a $2.7 million grant from a branch of the National Institute of Health (NIH) to conduct a study of the gut microbiome in premature infants and determine how it affects their growth and development.

Maureen Groer, PhD, is the Gordon Keller professor at the USF College of Nursing. She also serves as the lead researcher of an interdisciplinary team of USF scientists conducting the study.

"It's the only way to do this kind of science - it's team science," Groer said. "We all have particular knowledge and skills and we can collaborate and cooperate and come out with wonderful ideas together that we wouldn't have ever had on our own."

The microbiome is DNA taken from bacteria and other microorganisms inside the human gut. In the last few years, as technology has improved and genetic sequencing of those organisms has become easier, researchers made what Groer calls revolutionary discoveries.

In particular, she says, there's a relationship between these gut microorganisms and things like "behavior, anxiety, depression,  schizophrenia, autism; relationships between that gut microbiome and a variety of 'gut diseases' like Crohn's disease; relationships between that gut microbiome and the immune system, like allergy and auto-immune disease."

While previous studies show that full-term babies develop most of that gut microbiome by age two or three, there's no real science showing when preterm babies develop it. If it's indeed absent or slow in developing, does that lead to development issues premature babies are known to face - including many of those diseases Groer mentioned?

"We had this epiphany moment when we realized we had a freezer full of 'poopsicles' and there was all of this research on the gut microbiome."

That's where the latest five year study - an extension of previous NIH-funded work done by Groer and other researchers - comes into play.

In their earlier effort, about 100 premature (28 to 30 weeks gestation) low birth weight (less than 1,500 grams) babies were observed over a six week period in the Tampa General Hospital neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). As part of a study of feeding habits (mother's milk vs. formula) and health outcomes, researchers collected stool samples from the babies.

They took those samples back to their labs and froze them - Groer smilingly refers to them as "poopsicles" - for their work, but kept them afterwards.

"So we had this epiphany moment when we realized we had a freezer full of poopsicles and there was all of this research on the gut microbiome, and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, we have the opportunity to study whether these preterm infants develop what's called dysbiosis - an abnormal gut microbiome,'" Groer said.

Credit USF Health
USF Health Communications
USF College of Nursing Professor Maureen Groer works with some of the "poopsicle" samples in her lab.

Groer hopes to enlist 50 of the 100 babies in the earlier study and look at them at ages 2 and 4 to see how they're developing and if they are showing any signs of dysbiosis and any of the accompanying developmental issues.

Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that one out of nine infants born in the United States is premature. In addition, preterm births are the top cause of death in infants and also the leading cause of long-term neurological disabilities and other developmental health issues.

According to USF Health, Groer's research team includes:

Terri Ashmeade, MD, associate professor at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics and NICU director at Tampa General Hospital; Larry Dishaw, PhD, assistant professor at USF Pediatrics; Ming Ji, PhD, professor at USF Nursing; Kathleen Armstrong, PhD, professor at USF Pediatrics; and Elizabeth Miller, PhD, assistant professor at the USF Department of Anthropology. The children’s microbiome samples will be measured at the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) by Jack Gilbert, PhD, associate professor and environmental microbiologist at the ANL Department of Ecology and Evolution. Maternal stool samples will be analyzed in the USF College of Nursing’s state-of the-art bio-behavioral laboratory.

"The most exciting thing is the possibility of new discoveries that we'll make that will make a difference in the health of mothers and babies," Groer said. "Especially these little, fragile, preterm babies, to give them a leg up and to give them the best possible chance at having a healthy life."

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