CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom – Heart disease kills one in three people and costs the United States and Canada $130 billion each year. Most of this financial burden comes from treatment costs rather than preventative measures. Scientists and doctors are now focusing on finding ways to prevent the disease rather than simply treating it. One of those ways means treating patients while they’re still in the womb. Researchers at the University of Cambridge say giving the antioxidant MitoQ to pregnant sheep prevented their offspring from developing heart disease later in life.
A common complication in human pregnancy is low oxygen in the womb. Doctors can detect this condition, fetal hypoxia, during pregnancy. Chronic fetal hypoxia occurs due to a variety of factors, such as infection of the placenta, obesity in the mother, gestational diabetes, and pre-eclampsia.
How stress in the womb can lead to heart disease
One complication of fetal hypoxia is “oxidative stress,” which can lead to heart and blood vessel damage in babies. In normal conditions, our bodies maintain a constant balance between producing reactive oxygen species (ROS) and eliminating them through natural antioxidant mechanisms. Oxidative stress occurs when ROS production overwhelms our bodies’ internal antioxidant processes.
“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,” says lead researcher Professor Dino Giussani in a university release.
Giussani is a professor in the Department of Physiology, Development, and Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.
MitoQ’s long lasting impact
Mitochondria (cellular structures that create energy to power the body’s processes) are a major source of ROS and play an important role in oxidative stress. The British team targeted mitochondria using the antioxidant. The study finds MitoQ accumulates in mitochondria and reduces oxidative stress.
Researchers induced low oxygen conditions in pregnant sheep and before giving them MitoQ. Their results show using MitoQ prevents hypoxia-induced fetal growth restriction and high blood pressure among the offspring when they become adults.
“MitoQ has already been used in a number of human trials, for example it was shown to lower hypertension in older subjects. It is very exciting to see the potential to use MitoQ to treat a baby during a problematic pregnancy and prevent problems arising far later in life. There’s still a long way to go before this can be used by pregnant mothers, but our work points to new possibilities for novel treatments,” researcher Mike Murphy explains.
“If we want to reduce the prevalence of cardiovascular disease, we need to think of prevention rather than a cure. Applying this concept to pregnancy complications, we can bring preventative medicine all the way back into the womb – it’s treatment before birth. It completely changes our way of thinking about heart disease,” adds Giussani.
The study is published in the journal Science Advances.