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Role of Obesity in Preeclampsia Studied at University of Pittsburgh

$6.4 million NIH grant funds research on connections between body weight before pregnancy and common life-threatening pregnancy complication

PITTSBURGH , August 14, 2008 — A plague of obesity in the United States already is known to increase the risk of illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and joint problems. Now, an infusion of $6.4 million in grant support from the National Institutes of Health will enable researchers at the University of Pittsburgh-affiliated Magee-Womens Research Institute to investigate what role obesity may play in preeclampsia, a common complication of pregnancy that can be life-threatening for mother and baby. The grant is a renewal of funds originally awarded 14 years ago to support studies into the basic mechanisms of preeclampsia, but the focus on obesity is a new direction for research.

“We know there is a strong relationship between pre-pregnancy obesity and preeclampsia, and at least a third of all pregnant women in the United States are obese,” said Carl A. Hubel, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and principal investigator of the project. “Our work represents the first multidisciplinary evaluation of the possible mechanisms of the disease process as it relates to obesity.”

Although obesity is often viewed as a cosmetic or character flaw, the disorder is linked to disturbances in vital metabolic processes “that are posing one of the greatest health threats in human history,” said Dr. Hubel, who also is an associate investigator at the Magee-Womens Research Institute.

Pittsburgh researchers will study the interactions of proteins, lipids and other cellular components in an effort to discover important relationships between body weight and preeclampsia, a disorder characterized by dangerously high blood pressure and the presence of protein in the urine. Preeclampsia affects about 5 percent of first pregnancies, and women with preeclampsia are more likely to suffer the disorder in subsequent pregnancies.

“Preeclampsia is complex, with components involving improper vascular growth and functioning in the placenta, inflammation and other factors. Obesity also is related to inflammation, oxidative stress, insulin resistance, abnormal fatty acids and a host of other metabolic concerns,” he continued.

Investigations associated with the five-year NIH grant revolve around the interactions of specific immune system factors and basic cellular components to discover their relationship to the metabolic stress of pregnancy and placental development to result in the hallmarks of preeclampsia.

“These adverse effects of obesity on pregnancy also may be affected by lifestyle, sleep patterns, activity and diet,” said Dr. Hubel.

The obesity focus represents an entirely new direction in these preeclampsia studies, which are part of a14-year collaboration among researchers from Magee and the University of California, San Francisco. Other University of Pittsburgh scientists taking part include Robin Gandley, Ph.D., Robert W. Powers, Ph.D., Nina Markovic, Ph.D., James M. Roberts, M.D., Augustine Rajakumar, Ph.D., Valerian Kagan, Ph.D., Sanjeev Shroff, Ph.D., Lisa Bodnar, Ph.D., Janet Catov, Ph.D., and Arun Jeyabalan, M.D.

About the Magee-Womens Research Institute

The Magee-Womens Research Institute, the country’s first research institute devoted to women and infants, was established in 1992 by Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC. The Institute has attracted some $100 million in grant funding focusing on the critical need for research in women’s and infant’s health and representing the Institute’s continued strong ties to the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences and UPMC.

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