Image: Burnet Senior Researcher, Dr Philippe Boeuf
Burnet Institute researchers are urging greater investment and research to develop new interventions and strategies to address compelling needs in maternal and newborn health.
Writing in the journal Science Translational Medicine the researchers argue the global drought in therapeutics available or in development for maternal health is a major concern, given the enormous burden of disease.
Co-author and Senior Research Officer Dr Philippe Boeuf said there’s a particular need for pregnant women to be appropriately included and represented in clinical trials and therapeutic development.
“If you look at the effort from R&D departments at big pharmaceutical companies, there is an almost total absence of new drugs or therapeutics for maternal and child health, especially for pregnant women,” Dr Boeuf said.
“Understandable barriers exist for the development of therapeutics in pregnancy, including concerns about safety issues and potentially higher costs and regulatory hurdles.
“But these barriers can be addressed and together with greater investment in research and translation from all sectors, the development of new therapies and interventions could lead to life-saving improvements in maternal, newborn and child health.”
To illustrate their point, the Burnet researchers highlight two recent studies into low birth weight caused by malaria, which is linked to more than 100,000 infant deaths annually.
A new study from University of Toronto (UoT) found that L-arginine, a common amino acid that helps to promote blood flow, was able to improve the birth weight and offspring survival in a mouse model of malaria in pregnancy.
The UoT study complements recent Burnet research showing that inflammation caused by malaria in pregnancy disrupts a pathway that controls the transfer of nutrients from mother to fetus at a critical stage of fetal growth, leading to reduced birth weight. Interestingly, L-arginine is known to activate this pathway.
“By supplementing the diet of pregnant women with simple but targeted nutrients such as L-arginine and other nutrients, you would think that could have a very significant positive impact on birth weight and improving child health.”
Low birth weight is the single biggest risk factor for neonatal deaths globally, and malaria infection during pregnancy and poor maternal nutrition are leading causes of low birth weight.
In 2013, low birth weight affected more than 20 million infants worldwide, and for those infants who survive being born small, many have ongoing problems with growth and cognitive development.
Dr Boeuf said the logical next step is to test simple and safe supplements for pregnant women to see which ones can restore or improve the transfer of nutrients from mother to fetus to promote healthy growth in pregnancies at risk of malaria and poor nutrition.
“We believe we could achieve the same results on birth weight they (UoT) have. By targeting the pathway we have shown to be dysfunctional, we can have an impact on birth weight without detrimental effects on maternal health,” Dr Boeuf said.
“Finding an intervention that would improve both nutrition and restore fetal growth that’s being impacted by malaria that’s also simple, affordable and practical would be very, very beneficial.”
Dr Boeuf said Burnet’s longstanding “Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies” research project in Papua New Guinea’s East New Britain aims to identify the major causes of poor maternal and infant health and work with health services and government to develop and evaluate new strategies to improve the health of mothers and their babies.
LISTEN to Dr Boeuf discuss this issue on ABC Radio’s The World Today program on 8 March, International Women’s Day.