Is it normal to pee a little when you laugh?

It’s a simple question many women ask, and as a symptom of pelvic floor dysfunction, urinary incontinence in women is surprisingly common. However, it can also accompany a related and more debilitating disorder known as pelvic organ prolapse (POP), a condition characterized by the abnormal descent of the female pelvic organs.

Though not life-threatening, pelvic organ prolapse affects half of all women over the age of 50 and is notoriously difficult to treat; surgery is often the only viable option, but success rates are low, with 30 percent of women requiring additional procedures. Many of these pelvic reconstructive surgeries also utilize surgical mesh, a controversial material that comes with its own set of problems.

With a new grant from the National Science Foundation, Virginia Tech researcher Raffaella De Vita hopes to address those problems – and improve overall treatment approaches and outcomes for pelvic organ prolapse.

An associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics within the College of Engineering, De Vita will use animal models to study both the passive and active properties of the uterosacral ligaments, a group of tissues and structures that are predominantly responsible for supporting a woman’s uterus, cervix, and vagina. Yizheng Zhu, an assistant professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, will also serve a key role on the grant by developing imaging systems to quantify ligament cell and tissue deformation under various load conditions.