Ureaplasma parvum : understanding the complexities of intra-amniotic infection in an ovine model

Dando, Samantha Joan (2012) Ureaplasma parvum : understanding the complexities of intra-amniotic infection in an ovine model. PhD by Publication, Queensland University of Technology.


The human Ureaplasma species are the most frequently isolated bacteria from the upper genital tract of pregnant women and can cause clinically asymptomatic, intra-uterine infections, which are difficult to treat with antimicrobials. Ureaplasma infection of the upper genital tract during pregnancy has been associated with numerous adverse outcomes including preterm birth, chorioamnionitis and neonatal respiratory diseases. The mechanisms by which ureaplasmas are able to chronically colonise the amniotic fluid and avoid eradication by (i) the host immune response and (ii) maternally-administered antimicrobials, remain virtually unexplored. To address this gap within the literature, this study investigated potential mechanisms by which ureaplasmas are able to cause chronic, intra-amniotic infections in an established ovine model.

In this PhD program of research the effectiveness of standard, maternal erythromycin for the treatment of chronic, intra-amniotic ureaplasma infections was evaluated. At 55 days of gestation pregnant ewes received an intra-amniotic injection of either: a clinical Ureaplasma parvum serovar 3 isolate that was sensitive to macrolide antibiotics (n = 16); or 10B medium (n = 16). At 100 days of gestation, ewes were then randomised to receive either maternal erythromycin treatment (30 mg/kg/day for four days) or no treatment. Ureaplasmas were isolated from amniotic fluid, chorioamnion, umbilical cord and fetal lung specimens, which were collected at the time of preterm delivery of the fetus (125 days of gestation). Surprisingly, the numbers of ureaplasmas colonising the amniotic fluid and fetal tissues were not different between experimentally-infected animals that received erythromycin treatment or infected animals that did not receive treatment (p > 0.05), nor were there any differences in fetal inflammation and histological chorioamnionitis between these groups (p > 0.05). These data demonstrate the inability of maternal erythromycin to eradicate intra-uterine ureaplasma infections. Erythromycin was detected in the amniotic fluid of animals that received antimicrobial treatment (but not in those that did not receive treatment) by liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry; however, the concentrations were below therapeutic levels (<10 – 76 ng/mL). These findings indicate that the ineffectiveness of standard, maternal erythromycin treatment of intra-amniotic ureaplasma infections may be due to the poor placental transfer of this drug.

Subsequently, the phenotypic and genotypic characteristics of ureaplasmas isolated from the amniotic fluid and chorioamnion of pregnant sheep after chronic, intra-amniotic infection and low-level exposure to erythromycin were investigated. At 55 days of gestation twelve pregnant ewes received an intra-amniotic injection of a clinical U. parvum serovar 3 isolate, which was sensitive to macrolide antibiotics. At 100 days of gestation, ewes received standard maternal erythromycin treatment (30 mg/kg/day for four days, n = 6) or saline (n = 6). Preterm fetuses were surgically delivered at 125 days of gestation and ureaplasmas were cultured from the amniotic fluid and the chorioamnion. The minimum inhibitory concentrations (MICs) of erythromycin, azithromycin and roxithromycin were determined for cultured ureaplasma isolates, and antimicrobial susceptibilities were different between ureaplasmas isolated from the amniotic fluid (MIC range = 0.08 – 1.0 mg/L) and chorioamnion (MIC range = 0.06 – 5.33 mg/L). However, the increased resistance to macrolide antibiotics observed in chorioamnion ureaplasma isolates occurred independently of exposure to erythromycin in vivo. Remarkably, domain V of the 23S ribosomal RNA gene (which is the target site of macrolide antimicrobials) of chorioamnion ureaplasmas demonstrated significant variability (125 polymorphisms out of 422 sequenced nucleotides, 29.6%) when compared to the amniotic fluid ureaplasma isolates and the inoculum strain. This sequence variability did not occur as a consequence of exposure to erythromycin, as the nucleotide substitutions were identical between chorioamnion ureaplasmas isolated from different animals, including those that did not receive erythromycin treatment. We propose that these mosaic-like 23S ribosomal RNA gene sequences may represent gene fragments transferred via horizontal gene transfer. The significant differences observed in (i) susceptibility to macrolide antimicrobials and (ii) 23S ribosomal RNA sequences of ureaplasmas isolated from the amniotic fluid and chorioamnion suggests that the anatomical site from which they were isolated may exert selective pressures that alter the socio-microbiological structure of the bacterial population, by selecting for genetic changes and altered antimicrobial susceptibility profiles.

The final experiment for this PhD examined antigenic size variation of the multiple banded antigen (MBA, a surface-exposed lipoprotein and predicted ureaplasmal virulence factor) in chronic, intra-amniotic ureaplasma infections. Previously defined ‘virulent-derived’ and ‘avirulent-derived’ clonal U. parvum serovar 6 isolates (each expressing a single MBA protein) were injected into the amniotic fluid of pregnant ewes (n = 20) at 55 days of gestation, and amniotic fluid was collected by amniocentesis every two weeks until the time of near-term delivery of the fetus (at 140 days of gestation). Both the avirulent and virulent clonal ureaplasma strains generated MBA size variants (ranging in size from 32 – 170 kDa) within the amniotic fluid of pregnant ewes. The mean number of MBA size variants produced within the amniotic fluid was not different between the virulent (mean = 4.2 MBA variants) and avirulent (mean = 4.6 MBA variants) ureaplasma strains (p = 0.87). Intra-amniotic infection with the virulent strain was significantly associated with the presence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid (p = 0.01), which is an indicator of fetal distress in utero. However, the severity of histological chorioamnionitis was not different between the avirulent and virulent groups. We demonstrated that ureaplasmas were able to persist within the amniotic fluid of pregnant sheep for 85 days, despite the host mounting an innate and adaptive immune response. Pro-inflammatory cytokines (interleukin (IL)-1â, IL-6 and IL-8) were elevated within the chorioamnion tissue of pregnant sheep from both the avirulent and virulent treatment groups, and this was significantly associated with the production of anti-ureaplasma IgG antibodies within maternal sera (p < 0.05). These findings suggested that the inability of the host immune response to eradicate ureaplasmas from the amniotic cavity may be due to continual size variation of MBA surface-exposed epitopes.

Taken together, these data confirm that ureaplasmas are able to cause long-term in utero infections in a sheep model, despite standard antimicrobial treatment and the development of a host immune response. The overall findings of this PhD project suggest that ureaplasmas are able to cause chronic, intra-amniotic infections due to (i) the limited placental transfer of erythromycin, which prevents the accumulation of therapeutic concentrations within the amniotic fluid; (ii) the ability of ureaplasmas to undergo rapid selection and genetic variation in vivo, resulting in ureaplasma isolates with variable MICs to macrolide antimicrobials colonising the amniotic fluid and chorioamnion; and (iii) antigenic size variation of the MBA, which may prevent eradication of ureaplasmas by the host immune response and account for differences in neonatal outcomes. The outcomes of this program of study have improved our understanding of the biology and pathogenesis of this highly adapted microorganism.

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ID Code: 50958
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD by Publication)
Supervisor: Knox, Christine & Timms, Peter
Keywords: Ureaplasma parvum, Ureaplasma urealyticum, intra-amniotic infection, amniotic fluid, chorioamnion, chorioamnionitis, fetus, pregnancy, sheep, preterm birth, adverse pregnancy outcomes, erythromycin, macrolide, minimum inhibitory concentration, 23S ribosomal RNA, genetic variation, in vivo selection, virulent, avirulent, multiple banded antigen, inflammation, pathogenesis
Divisions: Current > Schools > School of Biomedical Sciences
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Health
Current > Institutes > Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 18 Jun 2012 06:07
Last Modified: 10 Sep 2015 02:20

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