Statins may counteract stress hormones in pregnant women

16 May 2016        

Category: BHF Comment

Pack of statins/cholesterol/hypercholestemia tablets

Statins could protect the hearts of babies in the womb from the adverse effects of their mother’s stress, according to research  that we've part-funded at the University of Edinburgh’s British Heart Foundation Centre for Cardiovascular Sciences.

Stress hormone in expectant mothers. 

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.

Normally, the unborn baby is protected by an enzyme produced by the placenta that breaks down stress hormones and prevents them from reaching the baby’s blood supply.

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

What did this study show?

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh studied mice that cannot produce this enzyme. They found that stress hormones stop the placenta from developing normal blood vessels, which cuts back the blood supply to the growing foetus. This means that the developing foetus does not grow as well as it should and its heart function does not develop normally.

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

The researchers showed that 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 research was published in the in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Statins are not usually offered to pregnant women and therefore further studies are needed to assess the long-term effects of statins in pregnancy. 

Our Associate Medical Director, Professor Jeremy Pearson, 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.”

The research also received funding from the Wellcome Trust and the Raine Medical Research Foundation, University of Western Australia.

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