MechSE researchers to study preterm birth

9/6/2017 Bill Bowman

Written by Bill Bowman

MechSE associate professors Kimani Toussaint and Amy Wagoner Johnson have been awarded a 4-year, $600K grant by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund to study preterm birth using a novel suite of technologies.

Toussaint (PI) and Wagoner Johnson (Collaborator) will be joined on the project by Professor Barbara McFarlin (Collaborator), who directs a preterm birth research program and is the department head of the College of Nursing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Preterm birth (PTB) affects 15 million babies annually worldwide and is the second leading cause of infant mortality in the U.S.

“The problem of spontaneous preterm birth is a significant one and is complicated,” Toussaint said. “We believe that there’s tremendous value in bringing together a cross disciplinary team of experts in engineering, namely biological imaging and materials and mechanics, and reproductive science to study this condition.”

The team will use novel imaging and mechanical metrology techniques to determine the structural and mechanical properties of cervical tissue as a function of gestational age. Results obtained from this technique will be compare with those obtained using a clinical technique that has shown to predict preterm birth in humans.

Existing approaches and technologies for assessing PTB exist at the organ level and at the level of proteins. However, according to a recent NIH study, wherein more than 9,000 women were screened throughout pregnancy, these tests identified only a small proportion of the women who would eventually deliver preterm.

The Illinois researchers plan to apply a novel suite of tools to study the cervix at the tissue (or microstructural) level, utilizing quantitative second-harmonic generation (qSHG) imaging, pioneered by Toussaint’s lab, to quantify the 3D collagen-fiber structural organization in cervix. They will also use nanoindentation (NI) to assess the biomechanical properties of cervix that result from the collagen.

Results obtained from qSHG and NI will be correlated with those obtained from quantitative ultrasound (QUS) measurements. McFarlin has been a pioneer in successfully applying QUS to study cervical remodeling in rats and humans, and PTB in humans.

“This is an exciting opportunity to apply new engineering tools to help solve a major societal problem, one that has continued to persist at surprising and unacceptable rates despite so much technology growth in so many areas,” Wagoner Johnson said. “We believe that this multidisciplinary approach will help to better understand some of the cervical changes that lead to PTB, and therefore will lead to the development of predictive models and clinical solutions.”  

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund is an independent private foundation dedicated to advancing the biomedical sciences by supporting research and other scientific and educational activities. Within this broad mission, BWF has two primary goals: to help scientists early in their careers develop as independent investigators, and to advance fields in the basic biomedical sciences that are undervalued or in need of particular encouragement. BWF’s financial support is channeled primarily through competitive peer-reviewed award programs.

For more information, contact:

Kimani Toussaint at 217-244-4088 or

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This story was published September 6, 2017.