Maternal treatment with vitamin C antioxidant during a complicated pregnancy could protect the baby from developing hypertension and heart disease in adulthood, suggests a study.
Heart disease is the greatest killer in the world today, and it is widely accepted that our genes interact with traditional lifestyle risk factors such as smoking, obesity and/or a sedentary life to promote an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
However, a new study on sheep by a team from Cambridge University, finds that babies born from pregnancies complicated by chronic hypoxia have increased indicators of cardiovascular disease such as high blood pressure and stiffer blood vessels.
Chronic hypoxia or lower-than-normal oxygen levels in the developing baby within the womb is one of the most common outcomes of complicated pregnancy in humans. It occurs as a result of problems within the placenta, as can occur in preeclampsia, gestational diabetes or maternal smoking.
"Our discoveries emphasise that when considering strategies to reduce the overall burden of heart disease, much greater attention to prevention rather than treatment is required," said lead researcher Dino Giussani, Professor from the varsity.
"Treatment should start as early as possible during the developmental trajectory, rather than waiting until adulthood when the disease process has become irreversible," Giussani added.
The study, published in the journal PLOS Biology, draws attention to a new way of thinking about heart disease with a much longer term perspective, focusing on prevention rather than treatment.
The team used pregnant sheep to show that maternal treatment with the antioxidant vitamin C during a complicated pregnancy could protect the adult offspring from developing hypertension and heart disease.
The study not only provides evidence that a prenatal influence on later heart disease in the offspring is indeed possible, but also shows the potential to protect against it by "bringing preventative medicine back into the womb", said Kirsty Brain from the varsity.
It turns out that vitamin C is a comparatively weak antioxidant, and while the Cambridge study provides a proof-of-principle, future work will focus on identifying alternative antioxidant therapies that could prove more effective in human clinical practice, the research said.