Babies that experience low oxygen levels in the womb due to pregnancy complications often go on to develop heart disease in adulthood, researchers say.
But a study using sheep has found that a specialised antioxidant called MitoQ can prevent heart disease at its onset.
Genetics and their interaction with lifestyle risk factors such as smoking and obesity also play a role in determining heart disease risk in adults.
But the researchers say there is also evidence the environment experienced during sensitive periods of foetal development directly influences long-term cardiovascular health – a process known as developmental programming.
Many people may be predisposed to heart disease as adults because of the low level of oxygen they received in the womb
Low oxygen in the womb – known as chronic foetal hypoxia – is one of the most common complications in human pregnancy.
Low oxygen to the developing foetus can damage its heart and blood vessels. It can be diagnosed when a scan during pregnancy shows the baby is not growing properly.
Professor Dino Giussani from the University of Cambridge’s department of physiology, development and neuroscience, who led the study, said: “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 foetal hypoxia, we can potentially prevent this.”
Oxidative stress largely originates in the cells’ mitochondria – the batteries that power our cells – where the processes of respiration and energy production occur.
To target mitochondria the Cambridge team used MitoQ, developed by Professor Mike Murphy and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge’s MRC-Mitochondrial Biology Unit.
It selectively accumulates within mitochondria, where it works to reduce oxidative stress.
After establishing the safety of the treatment, researchers gave MitoQ to pregnant sheep under low oxygen conditions.
They found that the therapy protected against foetal growth restriction and high blood pressure in the offspring as adults.
Using chicken embryos they also showed that MitoQ protects against mitochondria-derived oxidative stress.
Prof Murphy said: “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.”
The research, published in the journal Science Advances, was funded by The British Heart Foundation, and the programme of work was approved by the University of Cambridge Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Board.