$6 million grant to support study of preeclampsia, atherosclerosis links

Stanford researchers will study the connections between preeclampsia in pregnant women and the subsequent risk of atherosclerosis as the women grow older.

Preeclampsia affects 5 to 10 percent of all pregnancies — more than 8 million a year worldwide — and claims the lives of 76,000 mothers and a half-million babies each year.

The condition causes hypertension and an abnormal amount of protein in the urine, which can lead to organ failure, stroke and brain damage, and has few effective preventive or therapeutic strategies. The clinical abnormalities usually resolve completely after delivery, but recent research shows that women who have had preeclampsia have higher rates of heart disease later in life for reasons that are poorly understood.

That’s where Mark Hlatky, MD, and Virginia Winn, MD, PhD, come in. They were recently awarded a $6 million grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to study the links between preeclampsia and the subsequent risk of atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque in and on artery walls, in women as they grow older.

“The goal of this study is to improve cardiovascular health in women, by learning how pregnancy affects heart disease later in life,” said Hlatky, a Stanford Health Policy fellow and professor of medicine and of health research and policy. “We hope that shedding new light on these links can lead to better prevention and treatment.”

The interdisciplinary study is called Effect of Preeclampsia on Cardiovascular Health, or EPOCH. It could eventually help millions of women.

Hlatky and Winn, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, note that a history of preeclampsia doubles a woman’s risk of future heart disease and stroke, and triples her risk of hypertension. And these adverse consequences occur at younger ages than they do among women who never developed the condition during pregnancy.

 “The dramatic physiologic changes that happen during pregnancy are indeed remarkable,” Winn said. “This study highlights how complications that occur in pregnancy impact women’s health beyond pregnancy.”

The four-year grant will support a research team across eight Stanford departments. The study will enroll three cohorts of participants: one group of pregnant women with preeclampsia; one group of middle-aged women who had preeclampsia; and one group of older women who had the disorder.



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