The Biomechanics of the Cervix

by Melanie A. Farmer

Engineering professor Kristin Myers studies the biomechanics of the cervix. (Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)
Engineering professor Kristin Myers studies the biomechanics of the cervix.
Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University
Cars, bridges, tunnels—these are the structures usually associated with mechanical engineering.
 
But when Kristin Myers, an assistant professor at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, was considering research topics in graduate school, her Ph.D. advisor suggested the engineering behind pregnancy.
 
Today, Myers investigates the mechanical behavior of soft tissues, specifically the collagen fibers that make up the cervix, the lower end of the uterus that extends into the vagina. One of the main focuses of her lab is the characterization of the cervix during normal pregnancy and during cervical insufficiency, which is when the cervix starts to soften and dilate too early in the pregnancy.
 
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every eight babies is born prematurely. Women who have cervical insufficiency are at risk of going into labor in the second trimester, as early as the 24th week of gestation, or miscarrying.
 
Early in Myers’ dissertation research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she took a trip to a neonatal intensive care unit and saw for the first time a one-pound baby.
 
“The doctor who I was working with got a page that his patient at 24 weeks with twins was delivering,” said Myers. “I knew this was the project for me.”
 
Using hysterectomy specimens, Myers tests the cervix’s strength and elasticity; in essence, she is exploring its mechanical properties as a barrier that holds a baby inside and how it can fail as a structure.
 
The goal is to gain a better understanding of the structural properties of the cervix, to discover what goes wrong and why it can sometimes prematurely change. The hope is that the research will lead to treatments or the development of drugs for women with this condition.
 
“There needs to be a way to assess how strong a woman’s cervix is,” said Myers. “As a mechanical engineer, I am thinking about structure, about material properties. If we can identify a patient with a weak cervix, then perhaps we can manage her pregnancy better.”
 
Part of the challenge is to design the tools to test the strength of the cervix. To this end, Myers is working on developing new instruments.
 
After just a few months on campus, Myers has already teamed up with Dr. Ronald Wapner’s team at Columbia University Medical Center’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Wapner, a renowned expert in prenatal diagnostic and screening techniques, directs the division of maternal fetal medicine and was instrumental in developing the chorionic villus sampling (CVS), a prenatal diagnostic test to assess the health of the fetus. He also helped identify a first trimester screening method for Down syndrome, significantly changing the way prenatal genetic disorders are evaluated.
 
“Our bottom line is to find ways to reduce premature births, which is the leading cause of fetal deaths,” said Wapner. Myers’ work “is the missing piece of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
 
Growing up in the Detroit area, Myers was around cars a lot. Her father, an electrical engineer for Chrysler, raced cars for fun and tinkered with them in the driveway of their Warren, Mich., home. In high school, Myers interned at General Motors, her first introduction to a research and development lab.
 
Myers joined Columbia in July after completing her doctoral work at MIT and post-doctoral research at Johns Hopkins University. In addition to the cervical research, Myers also studies glaucoma. She examines the strength of the collagen fibers that make up the white part of the eye, or sclera, which is similar to the tissues in the cervix. Her research explores whether people who are diagnosed with glaucoma have a weaker eye structure, and if so, if there could be a way to correct it mechanically.
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