Scheme: Wolfson Research Merit Awards
Organisation: University of Cambridge
Dates: Oct 2006-Sep 2011
Summary: Heart disease it is the greatest killer in the UK today, imposing a substantial burden on the nation’s health and wealth. In addition to genetics interacting with lifestyle risk factors promoting heart disease, another concept has now become established - one of developmental programming. This states that a component of both the cardiovascular health we enjoy and the risk of heart disease in adult life can be predetermined before birth, not only by our genes, but also by their interaction with the quality of our prenatal development. In turn, the quality of the environment in the womb is determined by the available nutrient and oxygen supply to the growing young. To understand the relation between poor conditions in utero and increased risk of heart disease in later life, there has been an overwhelming number of studies relating the effects of poor maternal nutrition with later cardiovascular disease in the offspring. However, in contrast to this international research effort, how reductions in oxygen during early development increase the risk of heart disease in later life has been comparatively ignored. This is surprising as oxygen deprivation or hypoxia is a common challenge to fetal life in complicated pregnancies, such as those with placental insufficiency and pre-eclampsia. Our studies have found strong evidence to support that not only does fetal hypoxia trigger an early origin of cardiovascular disease, but that it does so secondary to oxidative stress in the fetal cardiovascular system. This is hopeful and exciting because we could treat with antioxidants pregnancies complicated with fetal hypoxia. Antioxidant therapy in risky pregnancy may thus give science a unique window of time to prevent the development of heart disease, at its earliest origin, even within the womb, thereby having a major clinical, economic and social impact on health.