New research fellow aims to better understand the fetal origins of heart disease

21 August 2013

The early determinants of heart health will be investigated in a new joint postdoctoral fellowship awarded by the Heart Foundation and Gravida: National Centre for Growth and Development.

The full-time position valued at $240,000 over 3 years has this week been awarded to reproductive biologist  Dr Anna Ponnampalam.

Dr Ponnampalam says mothers and babies affected by pre-eclampsia during pregnancy are at higher risk of developing heart disease and stroke later in life. Pre-eclampsia is a serious pregnancy complication characterised by high blood pressure and protein in the urine. It affects about 5% of pregnancies, and in New Zealand is most common in Maori and Pacific women. It is a major cause of maternal and perinatal mortality and morbidity. The only known cure is delivery of placenta and baby.

One of the main features of pre-eclampsia is insufficient blood flow to the placenta,” says Dr Ponnampalam. “My project aims to understand the role of a protein called Sirtuin I in regulating placental blood cells and vessel formation, how its mechanism of action differs in placentas from pre-eclamptic pregnancies and whether this molecule can be targeted as a treatment option for pre-eclampsia.”

Heart Foundation medical director Professor Norman Sharpe says building “heart-healthy children” is a key strategic goal for the Foundation, which has invested over $40 million in research.

“We have funded over 180 fellowships and scholarships over 45 years. This is our first research investment into the early determinants of heart health. We’re very pleased and excited.”

Gravida director Professor Phil Baker says the research sits perfectly with Gravida’s goal of discovering what makes a healthy start in life. “This project will provide new knowledge of one the most important aspects for a healthy start - proper establishment of placental blood supply,” Professor Baker says. “We are delighted to be collaborating with the Heart Foundation in this area of shared interest and look forward to future joint initiatives,” he says.

Gravida is a government-funded Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE) that brings together leading biomedical and clinical scientists seeking to reveal how conditions encountered in early life affect the way an individual grows and develops throughout life. The jointly-funded postdoctoral fellowship will build on Dr Ponnampalam’s work as a Liggins Institute Research Fellow investigating the placental regulation of a group of signalling molecules called cytokines in the initiation of labour.

Dr Ponnampalam won the 2012 Zonta Science Award which aims to advance the careers of “all round women” who not only work in the scientific field but also contribute to their community.

For media enquiries please contact:

Gravida: National Centre for Growth and Development Jennifer Dann, media advisor, Ph: 027 218 2936 www.gravida.org.nz

Heart Foundation Norman Sharpe, medical director, Ph: 027 497 1610

www.heartfoundation .