Statins, typically used to lower cholesterol, could help promote foetal blood vessel development in ‘stressed pregnancies’ and protect babies from developing disorders like heart disease, diabetes and stroke later in life, according to new research on mice released today.
The research, from University of Western Australia (UWA) and Edinburgh University, shows that the statin, Pravastatin, boosted placental blood vessel growth and restored foetal cardiac function in pregnant mice.
It is thought that blood vessel development during pregnancy could lower a baby's risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke risk in childhood and adulthood.
The study’s lead author, Dr Caitlin Wyrwoll from UWA’s School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology, says the research has important implications for developing possible treatments to improve foetal and childhood health.
“It provides evidence that promoting placental blood vessel development could be an important therapeutic approach in ‘stressed’ pregnancy and opens up the exciting possibility of the placenta as a target for treatment,” says Dr Wyrwoll.
“It provides evidence that promoting placental blood vessel development could be an important therapeutic approach in ‘stressed’ pregnancy and opens up the exciting possibility of the placenta as a target for treatment."
Dr Wyrwoll expects the drug, trialled on mice, could produce similar results on humans, although more research is needed to confirm the effects on pregnant women.
“In terms of central development, a mouse’s blood vessel network is akin to the human placental network in the way nutrients are transported. This gives us a meaningful insight into what happens in humans.”
She also predicts that, over the next decade, researchers like herself will conduct more tests and develop therapies to improve foetal health during stressed pregnancies.
“We can’t do much for women with stressed pregnancies at the moment but if we can develop a therapy to enhance the development of the placenta, we could potentially improve the short-term life of the baby and their health in later life.
“It’s all contingent on funding but within the next decade we should have a real meaningful understanding of the placenta, of diagnostics for when it is not functioning properly and we should be developing therapies.
“It’s an exciting time at the moment.”
The Australian-led study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, investigated how a mother’s psychological and physiological stress levels impact the placenta, and affects foetal development and blood vessel growth.
The researchers took away the gene HSD2, thought to play important role during pregnancy in protecting the placenta and the foetus from stress hormones, from the placenta during the span of mouse pregnancy.
They found that as well as this affecting blood vessel development in the placenta, the gene also impaired growth and heart function of the fetus.
The statin Pravastatin, often used to treat high cholesterol but also known to stimulate placental blood vessel development, was trialed to assess how withdrawing HSD2 would affect placental blood vessels and the fetus.
“When the foetus was exposed to high levels of stress hormone, the statin stimulated blood vessel development," she says. "The function of the placenta was increased and foetal growth increased.”
“When the fetus was exposed to high levels of stress hormone, the statin stimulated blood vessel development."
Stress during pregnancy can be caused by psychological or physiological factors like obesity or poor nutrition.
According to previous studies, there is a strong association with excessive levels of the stress hormone, glucocorticoid, during pregnancy and a reduction in foetal growth and diseases like diabetes and heart disease later in life.
Statins are a class of drugs, usually prescribed by doctors to help lower LDL cholesterol levels in the blood and help prevent heart attacks and stroke.
A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2015 suggests that using statins during pregnancy is safe but still advises against their use in pregnant populations.