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Statins curb effects of stress in womb

Statins could protect the hearts of babies in the womb from the adverse effects of their mother’s stress, research suggests.

Scientists have discovered that the widely-prescribed drugs help to counteract the negative impact of stress hormones on fetal growth and heart development in mice.

The therapy could lower the chances of babies being born underweight and reduce their risk of health problems in later life, including heart disease, researchers say.

Clinical trials

Further studies are needed to assess the long-term effects of statins in pregnancy, but the drugs are already used occasionally in pregnant women and should be suitable for clinical trials, the team says.

Although more work needs to be done to show statins are safe in human pregnancy, these results show a new way forward for the major unmet need of fetal growth retardation.

Professor Megan HolmesUniversity/ British Heart Foundation Centre for Cardiovascular Sciences

Health risks

Babies that are exposed to excessive stress hormones in the womb are often born underweight and have a greater risk of heart disease in later life.

Stress hormones

Normally, the unborn baby is protected by a key enzyme produced by the placenta that breaks down stress hormones and greatly limits the amount of active hormones that reach the baby’s blood supply.

When the expectant mother is stressed, they produce less of this enzyme and the baby is less well protected.

Mouse study

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh studied mice that cannot produce the enzyme as a model of maternal stress. 

They found that stress hormones stop the placenta from developing normal blood vessels, which cuts back the blood supply to the growing fetus.

The developing fetus does not grow to full size as a result, and its heart function does not develop normally.

Blood supply

Treating the mother with a type of statin triggers production of a molecule called VEGF, which stimulates the development of blood vessels in the placenta.

By re-establishing the blood supply, the treatment promotes normal development of the heart and helps the baby to grow to a healthy birthweight, the team showed.

How Pravastatin counteracts the stress hormone is not yet understood, therefore more research is needed to see whether the drug will have the same effect in humans.

Professor Jeremy PearsonAssociate Medical Director, British Heart Foundation

Statins

Around 2.5 million people in the UK take statins to lower high cholesterol.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was funded by the Wellcome Trust. The research also received funding from the Raine Medical Research Foundation, University of Western Australia.

Related links

Journal article

University/ British Heart Foundation Centre for Cardiovascular Sciences

Edinburgh Medical School