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Heart disease predetermined by oxygen levels in the womb

Visit Society for Endocrinology website

8 April 2008

The amount of oxygen available to a baby in the womb can affect their susceptibility to developing particular diseases later in life. Research funded by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the British Heart foundation and presented at the annual Society for Endocrinology BES meeting in Harrogate shows that your risk of developing cardiovascular disease can be predetermined before birth, not only by your genes, but also by their interaction with the quality of the environment you experience in the womb.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge, led by Dr Dino Giussani, examined the role that oxygen availability in the womb plays in programming your susceptibility to different diseases. His group found that babies that don’t receive enough oxygen in the womb (e.g. due to pre-eclampsia or placental insufficiency) are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease when they are adult. A reduction of oxygen levels in the womb can lead to reduced growth rates in the baby and to changes in the way that their cardiovascular, metabolic and endocrine systems develop. Combined, these alterations to the development of key systems in the body can leave the baby more prone to developing cardiovascular disease later in life.

Dr Giussani’s research also indicates methods by which we can potentially combat this problem. The detrimental effects of low oxygen levels on the development of the unborn’s cardiovascular system appear to be due to the generation of oxidative stress. Treatment with antioxidants in animal pregnancies complicated by low oxygenation can reverse these effects on the developing cardiovascular system and this could form the basis for new therapeutic techniques to prevent the early origin of heart disease in complicated human pregnancy.

Cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death in the UK, accounting for 4 in every 10 deaths. Almost 2.6 million people are affected by heart and circulatory conditions in the UK, with someone having a heart attack every 2 seconds.

Scientist Dr Dino Giussani said:

“We have known for a while that changes in maternal nutrition can affect fetal development and influence disease susceptibility later in life, but relatively little work has investigated how low oxygen levels in the womb may affect infant development. Our research shows that changes to the amount of oxygen available in the womb can have a profound influence on the development of the fetus in both the short- and long- term, and trigger an early origin of heart disease.

Interestingly, the adverse effects on the developing heart and circulation of poor fetal oxygenation are due to oxidative stress. This gives us the opportunity to combat prenatal origins of heart disease by fetal exposure to antioxidant therapy. This may halt the development of heart disease at its very origin, bringing preventative medicine back into the womb.”


Notes to editors

The paper will be presented at the Society for Endocrinology BES meeting at 08:45 on Tuesday 8 April 2008. The abstract for this work can be seen at: This work was funded by the British Heart Foundation, The Royal Society, The Lister Institute for Preventive Medicine, the BBSRC and the Isaac Newton Trust.

In addition to normal enquiries, Dr Giussani will also be available for extended interviews from 09:00-11:00 on Wednesday 9 April 2008.

The Society for Endocrinology BES 2008 is Britain’s biggest scientific meeting on hormones, and is taking place at the Harrogate International Centre, Harrogate, from 7-10 April 2008. For the full programme, please see

The Society for Endocrinology is Britain’s national organisation promoting endocrinology and hormone awareness. For general information, please visit our website:


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

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