FIU’s Jessica Ramella-Roman recently received a patent for using optical technologies to identify preterm labor.
Preterm labor, which occurs when a woman goes into labor before 37 weeks, occurs in more than 11percent of births in the United States and in more than 15 percent of births globally. It is the leading cause of infant neurological disorders and can cause severe physical issues for both the infant and mother.
The most common, currently used, way to predict when a woman will go into preterm labor is through the use of ultrasounds, which isn’t very effective. Ramella-Roman—who is an associate professor at the College of Engineering in the department of biomedical engineering and an associate research professor at the Herbert Wertheim School of Medicine—developed a system that uses light to examine the composition and structure of cervical tissue in order to measure preterm labor risk.
The cervix, through which the baby enters the world, is made of collagen, a structural protein that gives the cervix its strength. The part of the cervix that can be seen during a gynecologic examination is known as the ectocervix, and the opening in the center is known as the os. As a woman approaches term, the pattern of the collagen in the cervix changes. It goes from being very distinctly oriented, with the proteins arranged in a longitudinal way, to being less oriented, with the proteins dispersed. Ramella-Roman’s system can detect this collagen disbursement, indicating that a woman may soon go into labor.
The system is non-invasive, and unlike other methods, does not require expensive elements. In fact, it can be integrated with optical modalities that are already commonly found in an OB-GYN’s office, such as the colposcopes generally used for cervical exams, which means that there isn’t a high learning curve for practitioners.
“I’m beyond excited for this patent,” says Ramella-Roman. “It’s great to have recognition, and I’ve always thought that conducting research to that may help other human beings is a valuable way to spend your life and career.”
Ramella-Roman’s biomedical engineering research is focused on biophotonics. A combination of biology and photonics, biophotonics is the science and technology of generation, manipulation and detection of light. Studying biomedical engineering allowed Ramella-Roman to bridge two of her interests: engineering and developing systems that can help patients and physicians.
Ramella-Roman completed her undergraduate degree in Italy, where part of the requirement was to conduct a year-long thesis. To do so, she went to a lab specializing in biophotonics and was fascinated by the subject.
“Light has so many properties and can be used to see so many different things in the human body. And it was the early stages of the field, so there were so many opportunities for research and study,” she says.
Initial impetus for this research came from researchers at National Institutes of Health who were aware of her work in the use of light to assess collagen arrangement and reached out to Ramella-Roman and suggested she look into preterm research. She then contacted Nola Holness, an assistant professor in the Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing and Health Sciences, who helped her conduct the project’s initial human studies at FIU.
After having demonstrated proof of concept on a small group of pregnant women at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Ramella-Roman is in the process of securing funding in order to understand how to best optimize the technology.