Cholesterol-boosting statins could be used to help protect unborn babies from being impacted by their mother’s stress and thus reducing the risk of that baby growing up with health problems later in their life.
Statins are the most commonly prescribed treatment in the United Kingdom, taken by approximately anywhere between 5 and 10 million people, and estimated to cost the NHS around £500 million a year. They are usually prescribed to lower the patient’s high cholesterol levels, but scientists now believe they may also help protect the hearts of babies in the womb.
Research conducted at Edinburgh University discovered that statins helped counteract the negative effects brought on by stress hormones on foetal growth and heart development in mice.
Those involved in the research into the drugs, claim that the therapy may decrease the chances of babies being born underweight, and lower their risk of suffering with health problems in later life, such as heart disease.
Although the findings emanated from a study of mice, this may now prompt further analysis into looking at the long-term effects of statins during a woman’s pregnancy. However, researchers say the drugs are currently already sometimes given to pregnant women and therefore should be OK for clinical trials.
Professor Megan Holmes, from the University of Edinburgh, said: “These are very exciting results suggesting that there may finally be a potential therapy for women whose placenta is unable to maintain the normal growth of her baby.
“At present there is no treatment and babies may be born prematurely or small, and will be at greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even psychiatric disorders later in life.
“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 foetal growth retardation.”
Previous studies have shown babies are typically born under what is considered a ‘normal’ weight, following exposure to high levels of stress hormones within the womb, and have a much higher risk of heart disease as they get older.
Usually, an unborn baby gets protection from a key enzyme generated the placenta. The enzyme helps to destroy the stress hormones, reducing the quantity of active hormones that can get to the baby’s blood supply.
If the mother is experiencing high levels of stress, the placenta then produces less of the enzyme and the baby’s protection is reduced.
Therefore, the researchers involved in the latest study decided to analyse mice that are unable to produce the enzyme as a model of maternal stress. It was discovered that stress hormones prevent the placenta from developing regular blood vessels, hindering the blood supply to the foetus.
This stops the growing foetus from reaching a full size as a result, negatively impacting the heart function too.
However, researchers found that by treating the mother with the statin Pravastatin, actually managed to trigger the production of a molecule called VEGF. This worked at stimulating the development of blood vessels in the placenta. Pravastatin is just one of numerous statins provided by Medical Specialists® Pharmacy, which also includes atorvastatin and rosuvastatin.
The study – published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was funded by the Wellcome Trust – found that by re-establishing the blood supply, the treatment helped to promote a regular development of the heart. In addition, the baby was able to grow to a healthy birthweight.
Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Low birthweight has been associated with maternal stress, and babies with low birthweights may be more prone to cardiovascular complications later in life.
“In this study the researchers have discovered that a drug called Pravastatin may counteract the consequences of increased levels of the stress hormone corticosterone within the placentas of mice.
“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.”