Viagra could boost baby growth in the womb

viagraClinical trials are set to begin later this year in Australia and New Zealand to see if Viagra may help baby growth in the womb.

It seems the wonders and possibilities of the erectile dysfunction medication Viagra appear to be increasing on a regular basis. Earlier this year,  scientists claimed that Viagra could impact on white fat cells and thus help to combat obesity, whilst last year TV gardener David Domoney claimed Viagra could even be used to perk up flowers and keep them fresher for longer. If the results of the Australian and New Zealand trials prove successful, we may see at-risk pregnant women being prescribed the little blue pill in the near future.

The clinical trials have been arranged after previous studies showed that sildenafil – the active ingredient of Viagra – could aid the survival of babies inside the mother’s womb by increasing blood supply to the placenta. This is the organ that links the baby’s blood supply to the mother’s.

“There is currently no treatment for growth restriction, other than early delivery once a baby is in danger,” says Dr Kate Groom, who is leading the research at the University of Auckland.

It is hoped that babies at high risk of being born premature or worse, stillborn, may be helped.  One of the causes for a baby being stillborn is due to the condition pre-eclampsia, which can affect up to around 10% of first time pregnancies.

The specific reasons behind pre-eclampsia are not fully established, however it is believed to develop when the placenta does not receive enough blood the baby requires due to arteries not widening enough. An estimated 600 babies are delivered stillborn each year in the UK because of pre-eclampsia, but this figure may decrease in the future if sildenafil is proved a success in the trials.

For the clinical trials, 120 pregnant women who are at a higher risk of having a pre-term/low-growth baby, will be given a low dose of sildenafil to take during their pregnancy and compared against pregnant women in the same high risk group who will be administered a similar looking dummy placebo tablet.

Dr Groom explained the reasoning behind the new human trials, stating how previous animal studies have demonstrated positive results. She said: “Obviously, the drug is famous for increasing the blood supply to the male pelvis but what we’re looking at is the potential to increase blood supply to the female pelvis, and therefore increase blood supply to the placenta. The work that’s been done up until now has been looking at samples of muscle from the uterus and from the placenta from women who’ve had these conditions and applying sildenafil or other types of drugs and making comparisons that show improvements in the blood vessels. In some studies within small animals – looking at babies that are growing we’ve seen sildenafil showing that it does improve growth. We’ve now got the opportunity and we think we’ve got enough evidence to show proof of principle that we should start to have a look and see whether we can help women whose babies are really small.”

It is hoped that many lives could be saved in the future. But that is the important word – future. Pregnant women should not start taking Viagra and Dr Groom added: “It’s got really exciting potential but I think it is important to stress at the moment it is potential. We certainly don’t recommend that anybody should be taking this drug outside of a clinical trial and very close supervision. We are still a few years away from getting an answer, but if this does improve babies’ growth it would be a real breakthrough in terms of our management of foetal growth restriction.”

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