Influence of corticosteroids on the fetal heart

Lenka Hrabalkova, Sarah Stock, Karen Chapman, Matt Kemp, John Newnham, Alan Jobe

Steroids given to mother at risk of premature birth reduce risk of lung problems in their babies, but may affect how a baby’s heart develops.

This research study is now complete

Start: April 2018

End: April 2019

Why do we need this research?

Drugs called corticosteroids are sometimes given to pregnant women who are at risk of premature birth. These drugs can help prevent lung disease in babies who are born too early.

However, there is increasing evidence that corticosteroids might have unintended effects on other organs. Researchers think that they might affect how the heart develops, which could contribute towards the increased risk of heart disease faced by people who were born prematurely.

We need to better understand how and why corticosteroids affect the development of the heart, so that we can prevent health problems in later life for premature babies.

What happened in this project?

Researchers funded by Tommy’s looked at the hearts of lambs who had been had been born prematurely. Sheep were involved in these experiments because they have a relatively long gestation of around five months, and their heart is similar enough to a human’s. This means that findings from this research can be more easily applied to premature birth in humans.

Some of the ewes had been given doses of a corticosteroid called betamethasone (also known as Celestone), and some had not. The results suggest that betamethasone may slow the growth of heart muscle cells and reduce the density of heart cells in the fetus. These changes occurred in the right ventricle, the part of the heart which is responsible for pumping blood to the lungs to get oxygen. 

Interestingly, our scientists found that a modified version of this drug, called betamethasone acetate, appeared to not affect the heart as much. The team are now continuing to study how steroid drugs affect the development of the heart, and how to minimise the risk of complications.

What difference will this project make?

This project has revealed the impact that commonly used drugs can have on the fetal heart. Understanding how things that happen before a baby is born can affect how the heart grows will help us give premature babies the best chance at a healthy life.

Get our research updates

Tommy's funds research across the UK investigating the reasons for pregnancy complications and loss. If you're interested in being kept updated about our research and news from Tommy's, click here.

More research projects

Latest news and views

  • A nurse taking a patients blood pressure in a hospital room


    Pregnancy is a unique chance to predict health risks to mums

    A recently published article, co-authored by Professor Catherine Williamson from Tommy’s Research Centre at King’s College London, suggests that certain pregnancy complications can indicate future health issues for women.

  • Rising demand for Tommy's midwives in coronavirus lockdown


    Tommy’s awarded grant to help meet rising demand for support during coronavirus lockdown

    Tommy’s has received a grant from the UK Government’s Department for Health and Social Care to support the costs of its PregnancyHub information and support services throughout the summer, due to rising demand in the wake of coronavirus.

  • Tommy's researchers latest findings


    Tommy’s Research Centres continue vital work on pregnancy complications

    Although recruitment to some clinical trials had to be paused when coronavirus hit the UK, scientists at Tommy’s Research Centres across the UK are still hard at work, supporting women and families in our specialist clinics and sharing their latest studies with academic journals.

  • Blog

    Miscarriage during lockdown

    The day before Mother’s Day, and two days before the UK officially went into coronavirus lockdown, Zara Dawson found out she was having a miscarriage. Her third consecutive miscarriage in less than a year, and fourth consecutive loss, after losing her second son Jesse in 2018 to termination for medical reasons.

    Was this information useful?

    Yes No