Case Western Reserve University is funding the study with a five-year, $1.85 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the university said in a release Friday.
The research is to be headed by Yiping Han, an associate professor of dentistry who's written extensively about how harmless bacteria in a mother's mouth can turn deadly when it reaches an unborn child.
"It's an upstream approach to go back to where the whole process begins and stop it from starting its destruction," Han said of her research.
Bacteria from the mouth can move through the placenta, rapidly multiplying in the immune-free environment that protects the fetus from being rejected by the mother's body, Han said. The bacterial growth inflames the placenta, which can trigger premature birth and fetal death, she said.
Han said her research also could have implications for preventing periodontal disease, which has been linked to arthritis, diabetes and heart disease.