Pitt Researchers Awarded NIH Grant to Study Obesity’s Role in Preeclampsia

Issue Date: 
October 13, 2008

13oct-pregnant.jpgA $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will enable researchers at the University of Pittsburgh to investigate the 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.

“We know there is a strong relationship between prepregnancy obesity and preeclampsia, and at least a third of all pregnant women in the United States are obese,” said Carl A. Hubel, assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences in the 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 Hubel, who also is an associate investigator at 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 five 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 with 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 Hubel.

The obesity focus represents an entirely new direction in these preeclampsia studies, which are part of a 14-year collaboration among researchers from Magee and the University of California, San Francisco.