“Stop itching” drug for liver disease mums may help reduce risk of stillbirth in their babies
Researchers funded by children’s health charity Action Medical Research have discovered that a drug given to pregnant women for severe itching – a symptom of a liver disease which can cause stillbirth – could also help to lower the risk of stillbirth itself.
One pregnant woman in every 200 in the UK develops a liver disease called obstetric cholestasis. It is normally diagnosed after the mother-to-be notices an unusual itching, often on the palms and the soles of the feet. This disease can cause serious problems for the unborn baby, including premature birth and fetal distress. Tragically, some babies are stillborn as a result.
The research was carried out by two leading scientists from Imperial College, London – Dr Julia Gorelik, a heart expert, from the National Heart and Lung Institute, and Professor Catherine Williamson, an authority on obstetric cholestasis, from the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology.
This research team has spent the past three years investigating the effect of obstetric cholestasis on babies’ hearts to try to find out what puts them at risk, and how to protect them from being stillborn as a result of their mother’s condition. It has long been known that pregnant women with obstetric cholestasis have abnormally high levels of bile acids in their blood, because the liver isn’t working properly.
The project team investigated whether the raised level of bile acids might endanger unborn babies by causing their heart to beat abnormally, putting them at a risk of heart attack and therefore being stillborn.
They also looked at whether the drug UDCA – given to reduce the mother’s itching – could protect the baby’s heart cells from bile acid and therefore prevent stillbirths. They discovered that bile acids did cause problems in a model of unborn babies’ hearts but that UDCA abolished the arrhythmia – abnormal heart rate or rhythm – caused in the heart cells, which would result in an improvement of the overall function of babies’ hearts.
Dr Julia Gorelik, said: “This is an important discovery in our work to better understand why babies are stillborn as a result of this liver disease. It opens the door for more work to be carried out into the use of the drug UDCA and its potential to prevent stillbirth.
“The ultimate aim is to find a successful new treatment for obstetric cholestasis. The goal is a treatment that frees expectant mothers from worries that their condition may harm their baby and helps avoid the heartbreak of stillbirth by saving babies’ lives.”
Their findings have recently been published and are linked to ongoing studies around the world which are hoping to culminate in written evidence-based guidelines for maternal treatment to prevent complications to babies as a result of obstetric cholestasis.
Yolande Harley, Deputy Director of Research for Action Medical Research, said: “We identify the very best medical research to help save and change children’s lives. We aim to reduce the unacceptably high rate of premature birth, prevent pregnancy complications that threaten babies’ lives and find the best ways to care for sick and vulnerable babies.
“It is wonderful to have funded such an important piece of research which contributes to the bigger picture to try to save babies’ lives and prevent the distress of stillbirth.”
Notes to editors:
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Action Medical Research is the leading UK-wide medical research charity dedicated to helping babies and children. We know that medical research can save and change children’s lives. For nearly 60 years we have been instrumental in significant medical breakthroughs, including the development of the UK polio vaccine and ultrasound scanning in pregnancy.
Today, we continue to find and fund the very best medical research to help stop the suffering of babies and children caused by disease and disability. We want to make a difference in:
tackling premature birth and treating sick and vulnerable babies
helping children affected by disability, disabling conditions and infections
targeting rare diseases that together severely affect many forgotten children.