A new study from The University of Western Australia has found the placenta may play a more crucial role than previously thought in influencing babies’ health throughout pregnancy and that the organ could be individually targeted for treatment.

The ground-breaking research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences studied the effects of stress hormones during pregnancy and found that therapies targeting the placenta may ultimately help protect babies from the risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke later in life.

Dr Caitlin Wyrwoll from UWA’s School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology said the study, carried out with Edinburgh University, used mice to look at the problem of low birth weight which is associated with an increased risk of “cardio-metabolic disorders”, such as heart disease, later in life.

“We knew that underlying the link between low birth weight and these disorders was an elevated exposure by the baby in the womb to ‘gluco-corticoids’ or stress hormones,” Dr Wyrwoll said.

“The gene known as HSD2 plays an important role during pregnancy in protecting the placenta and the foetus from these hormones and acts as a protective barrier during a ‘stressed pregnancy’ where, for example, a mother might be suffering poor nutrition.

“In our study we took away this gene during the span of mouse pregnancy and found that as well as this affecting blood vessel development in the placenta, it also impaired growth and heart function of the fetus.”

The researchers then trialled Pravastatin, often used to treat high cholesterol but also known to stimulate placental blood vessel development, to assess the impact this would have on the affected placental blood vessels and the fetus.

“We found that when we used Pravastatin the placental blood vessels developed more complexity and that normal fetal growth and cardiac function were restored,” Dr Wyrwoll said.

“This 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.

“This would have significant benefits, particularly in ‘stressed’ pregnancies, in helping with the growth and development of the unborn child which in turn would help protect them from disorders like heart diseases and stroke later in life.”

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