An antioxidant treatment during pregnancy may prevent heart problems caused by low oxygen levels.
Chronic fetal hypoxia – low oxygen levels in the womb – is one of the most common pregnancy complications and can be diagnosed by a routine scan. Affected babies can experience heart problems later in life, but researchers from the University of Cambridge have reported that administering a specialised mitochondrial antioxidant to the mother may prevent or reduce these harmful effects.
'Many people may be predisposed to heart disease as adults because of the low level of oxygen they received in the womb. By providing a specific mitochondria-targeted antioxidant supplement to mothers whose pregnancy is complicated by fetal hypoxia, we can potentially prevent this,' said senior author Professor Dino Giussani.
Oxygen deprivation leads to a state of 'oxidative stress' in the mitochondria of the fetal cells. Mitochondria are structures inside cells and are where energy is generated using sugars and oxygen brought to the cell by the bloodstream. Oxidative stress in fetuses can cause damage to the heart and blood vessels that increases the risk of cardiovascular disease in adulthood.
The researchers used an antioxidant to reduces oxidative stress and prevent downstream complications. They chose MitoQ because it is known to be able to cross the membrane into the mitochondria and to accumulate there.
To test if MitoQ would successfully cross the placenta the researchers administered MitoQ to pregnant sheep under low oxygen conditions, and reported that this reduced the risk of high blood pressure and consequent heart diseases in the offspring.
Chicken embryos were also used to characterise the role of MitoQ therapy on the embryonic heart independent of any influence from the mother or the placenta.
Professor James Leiper, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation who was not involved in the study, said 'Further research is now needed to translate these findings from animals to humans and identify the most effective time in development to give the MitoQ supplement to 'at risk' babies - whether that's a particular point during pregnancy or soon after birth. Overcoming this next hurdle will enable it to be tested in clinical trials.'
The research was published in Science Advances.