Now, research being presented at the 13th World Congress of the International Society for the Study of Hypertension in Pregnancy by scientists from the Magee-Womens Research Institute and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine suggests even a mild deficiency in vitamin C appears to negatively affect vascular elasticity and function - a key symptom of preeclampsia.
"Research is closing in on this menace," said James M. Roberts, M.D., professor and chairman of research in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, director of the Magee-Womens Research Institute and president of the International Society for the Study of Hypertension in Pregnancy. "But there is still much to do."
Carl A. Hubel, Ph.D., assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and his colleagues studied arterial pressure and elasticity in pregnant and non-pregnant rats that, like humans, are unable to synthesize vitamin C.
Dr. Hubel's group found that blood vessel stiffness increased in pregnant rats when vitamin C concentrations were restricted. Non-pregnant animals were not similarly affected by vitamin C restriction, however.
These results were observed despite a natural physiologic change initiated by pregnancy that typically increases blood vessel elasticity, which in turn affects blood pressure. While researchers have long known that vitamin C concentrations are decreased in women with preeclampsia, the specific effect on vascular function remains unclear, according to Dr. Hubel, who is also an investigator with the Magee-Womens Research Institute.
Women who have previously experienced preeclampsia, also known as toxemia and characterized by high blood pressure, swollen ankles and the presence of protein in the urine, have an even greater chance of developing the disorder in subsequent pregnancies. Other risk factors include maternal age of less than 25 or more than 35 years and preexisting hypertension, diabetes or kidney disease.
"Preeclampsia is one of the leading causes of maternal, fetal and neonatal disability and death," said Dr. Roberts.
Magee-Womens Research Institute, the country's first institute devoted to women and infants, was formed in 1992 by Magee-Womens Hospital of the UPMC Health System. The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine's department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences is one of the top three funded departments by the National Institutes of Health.
Members of the International Society for the Study of Hypertension in Pregnancy meet formally every two years to exchange ideas and foster collaboration. Membership includes physicians and researchers in the fields of obstetrics, gynecology, epidemiology and other public health specialties.
Note to editors: To arrange an interview with Drs. Roberts or Hubel, please call Michele Baum or Kathryn Duda at 412-647-3555.