Public Release: 

UT researcher receives $2.4 million to research obesity, high-risk pregnancy

NIH grant will examine preeclampsia, gestational diabetes in pregnant women with hypertension or obesity

University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

HOUSTON (Feb. 12, 2010) - The link between obesity and high-risk pregnancies caused by preeclampsia and diabetes will be the focus of a $2.4 million National Institutes of Health research grant received by Sean Blackwell, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston.

Researchers hope the observational study will provide them with a better understanding of the cause, diagnosis and history of preeclampsia and diabetes in pregnant women and whether or not obese pregnant women and non-obese pregnant women are at the same risk of having complications during their pregnancy.

"We hope our findings from this study will be used to develop effective treatments and therapies and have the potential to save lives," said Blackwell, lead investigator of the grant and director of the Larry C. Gilstrap Center for Perinatal and Women's Health Research at the UT Medical School at Houston.

Preeclampsia is a leading cause of fetal complications including low birth weight, premature birth and stillbirth and is the second leading cause of maternal death in the United States. Signs of preeclampsia include increased blood pressure and protein in a mother's urine as a result of kidney problems, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It can affect the placenta and the mother's kidney, liver and brain. The NIH estimates preeclampsia causes 15 percent of premature births and leads to the death of more than 50,000 women each year. The only effective treatment for preeclampsia is to immediately deliver the baby.

Diabetes affects two to ten percent of all pregnancies and can lead to miscarriage and stillbirth, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Women with gestational diabetes and high blood glucose levels during pregnancy increase the risk of having a large baby and cesarean birth.

According to Blackwell, this study is novel because it focuses on pregnancies complicated by various degrees of obesity. Researchers will evaluate the role of blood vessels, fat proteins and other emerging molecules in the development of preeclampsia and gestational diabetes; explore the relationship between preeclampsia and gestational diabetes; and assess the association between a decrease in vaginal bacteria and preterm birth.

Blackwell and his team will follow non-obese and obese pregnant women with chronic hypertension and without diabetes, non-diabetic pregnant women with chronic hypertension with or without obesity, healthy obese pregnant women and healthy non-obese pregnant women. Participants will be followed from their first trimester through six weeks post-partum and researchers will assess changes in the metabolic parameters and blood vessel function of the mother, as well as changes in fetal growth.

Beginning April 1, participants will be recruited from physician's offices and prenatal clinics that deliver at Memorial Hermann Hospital-Texas Medical Center. The grant is in collaboration with The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and George Saade, M.D., professor and director of maternal fetal medicine at UTMB. The four-year award comes from the NIH's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development's Division of Epidemiology, Statistics and Prevention Research.

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