University of South Florida

Researchers focus on translating science into better health for mothers and babies [Multimedia]

From molecular discoveries to health policy applications, Drs. Maureen Groer and William Sappenfield have built impressive careers working to improve perinatal care.

Many parents may never understand how the health of their children begins long before birth, but USF Health’s Maureen Groer, PhD, and William Sappenfield, MD, MPH, are both passionate about translating research into better health care and outcomes for mothers and babies.

Dr. Groer, who holds a PhD in physiology, is a pediatric nurse, family nurse practitioner and the Gordon Keller Professor at the USF College of Nursing. She works primarily at the micro level – examining the molecular mechanisms underlying immunology, biology and behavior and how the “crosstalk” among these systems may affect the health of infants and their mothers.

USF College of Nursing's Maureen Groer, RN, PhD, FAAN, is a nurse scientist who studies the biobehavioral mechanisms affecting the health of mothers and  infants.

USF College of Nursing’s Maureen Groer, RN, PhD, FAAN, a nurse physiologist with more than 35 years experience, studies underlying biobehavioral mechanisms affecting the health of infants and their mothers.

Dr. Sappenfield, a pediatrician and epidemiologist, is professor and chair of Community and Family Health at the USF College of Public Health, director of the Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies, and co-director of the Florida Perinatal Quality Collaborative.   He works at the macro level – joining a variety of stakeholders to distill population data about diseases and their risk factors, treatment patterns and socioeconomic conditions into meaningful policies and practices to improve the health of mothers and babies.

William Sappenfield, MD, MPH is an epidemiologist and professor at the USF College of Public Health.

USF College of Public Health’s William Sappenfield, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician and epidemiologist working with stakeholders at the local, state and national levels to improve the quality of perinatal care.

Linking the gut microbiome of premature infants with long-term health

The beneficial balance of trillions of bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms in the digestive tract – known as the gut microbiome – has become a hot research topic. Dr. Groer is particularly interested in the link between the gut microbiome in premature babies and their long-term health. Increasing evidence shows that the interaction of microbe populations and controlled inflammation in the gut plays a critical role in developing a healthy immune system. Other studies point to a gut-brain microbe connection with neuropsychiatric illnesses, such as autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

In full-term healthy infants a “signature” gut microbiome – influenced by diet, where someone lives and other environmental determinants — is typically established by age 3.  But when infants are born too early, the proper evolution of the gut may be disrupted by various factors, including delivery by Cesarean section (C-section), physiological immaturity of the baby’s organs, and extended time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

While the NICU provides lifesaving supportive care, babies who spend their first weeks or months there, instead of living at home, receive multiple antibiotics, undergo stressful invasive procedures, interact less with their mothers, and typically ingest more formula milk than breast milk, which would transfer the mother’s own beneficial gut bacteria to the lactating infant.

Maureen Groer, RN, PhD, FAAN is a nurse professor and research at the USF College of Nursing.

The USF College of Nursing Biobehavioral Laboratory that Dr. Groer oversees is one of the top wet labs for nursing science in the country.

The National Institute of Nursing Research recently awarded Dr. Groer a $2.7 million, five-year grant to study how DNA extracted from the gut microbiome of preterm infants may be influencing their growth and development. The discoveries by USF and others may ultimately help devise ways to modify the mix of bugs in the premature baby’s gut to create the best microbiome possible for long-term physical and mental health.

“We don’t yet have the science to develop tailored probiotic treatments, but I think that’s the future,” Dr. Groer said. “This research might lead to early diagnosis and treatment of chronic bowel diseases, ways to reduce allergies and autoimmune diseases, and even new ways of preventing depression and anxiety.”

Dr. Groer with Adetola Louis Jacques, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine fellow in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, collaborate on some data for a manuscript. Dr. Groer works with researchers across several  disciplines.

Dr. Groer with Adetola Louis Jacques, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine fellow in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, collaborate on data for a manuscript. Dr. Groer works with researchers across several disciplines.

Continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health for the last 15 years, Dr. Groer works with colleagues in nursing, medicine, anthropology, developmental psychology, microbiology and other disciplines. Her work has contributed to a better understanding of the biobehavioral mechanisms underlying mother-infant interactions, including the growing body of evidence about the extensive health benefits of breastfeeding.

“To attract the kind of research funding we need to launch and support big studies, nurses need to understand metabolism, genomics, microbiomics and proteomics,” Dr. Groer said. We need this type of data-driven laboratory environment to contribute to the next generation of science, which is molecular.”

Using the power of meaningful data to help transform perinatal care quality

Even though he is a board-certified pediatrician, Dr. Sappenfield decided to embark on a career of public health research and practice instead of entering a traditional medical practice following his residency. He earned a master’s of public health degree from Harvard and completed postdoctoral training in preventive medicine and applied epidemiology at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“I fell in love with public health, because it was a way I could impact the health of children and families on a population basis, not just one child at a time,” Dr. Sappenfield said. “Knowing I can work with others to make a true measurable difference in lives of mothers, children and families gives me all energy I need to get up every day and go again.”

USF Health

Dr. Sappenfield outside the Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies, which he directs. The statewide center is based at the USF College of Public Health.

One of Dr. Sappenfield’s key academic achievements to help transform quality of care for pregnant women and newborns has been co-founding and co-directing the Florida Perinatal Quality Collaborative (FPQC) with John Curran, MD, professor of pediatrics and an associate vice president at USF Health.

The FPQC provides leadership and technical assistance to public and private partners across the state, often joining perinatal quality collaboratives in other states to launch health care quality improvement initiatives. Physicians, nurse midwives, nurses, public health professionals, hospitals, advocates, policy makers and payers voluntarily and collectively work together on select evidence-based initiatives to make measurable improvements in Florida’s maternal and infant health outcomes.

“Most of the initiatives we’re funded to do at $100,000 to $200,000 per year have been saving millions of dollars in costs while also improving health care and the quality of lives of mothers and babies,” Dr. Sappenfield said.

For example, one of FPQC’s first successes was its participation in a March of Dimes-supported, multistate pilot project to reduce escalating rates of early elective deliveries – inductions of labor and C-sections without a medical reason before a baby reaches a full 39 weeks gestational age.  Babies delivered before full term are at higher risk for serious complications, including respiratory distress, brain injuries, learning disabilities, and breastfeeding problems.

William Sappenfield, MD, MPH is an epidemiologist and professor at the USF College of Public Health.

Dr. Sappenfield works with colleagues at the Chiles Center.

A recent demonstration project to reduce potentially deadly central-line associated infections in newborns saved an estimated $8 million over 18 months by avoiding infections, reducing hospital stays, and preventing deaths, Dr. Sappenfield said. Using hospital-specific data monitoring and hands-on training, the FPQC helped 18 Florida NICUs establish practices proven to reduce infection, including rigorous catheter insertion protocols and techniques for maintaining a sterile environment.

A new project to start in September focuses on improving the use of antenatal steroids, medications shown to safely reduce complications for premature babies when given at the optimal time to women at high risk for preterm deliveries. A second initiative expected to launch in November targets hypertension (high blood pressure) during pregnancy, one of the leading causes of pregnancy-related illnesses and deaths in Florida.

“With quality improvement, we’re trying to take what we’ve learned (works) from research and put into place systems and practices to make sure everyone gets those benefits,” Dr. Sappenfield said.

William Sappenfield, MD, MPH is an epidemiologist and professor at the USF College of Public Health.

Dr. Sappenfield, a pioneer in applying epidemiology to issues affecting maternal and child health, has worked in the field for more than 30 years. “There’s never been a more exciting time than now,” he says.

Dr. Sappenfield is optimistic about the potential to make even greater advances in maternal and child health.

“I’ve been working to try to improve the health of mothers and babies for 30 years, and there’s never been a more exciting time than now,” he said. “Everyone is willing to work together to make a difference in the lives of these mothers and babies.”

Photos and video by Sandra Roa, USF Health Communications

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