Ion channel activators as a potential treatment for women with pre-eclampsia

In an attempt to find new treatments for pre-eclampsia, Tommy’s researchers are finding out whether drugs that activate the BKCa ion channel can be used to relax blood vessels and reduce blood pressure in pregnancy.
  • Author's list

    Dr Elizabeth Cottrell, Dr Stephanie Worton, Dr Adam Greenstein

    Start date: September 2021
    End date: September 2024

  • Research centre

  • Research status

    Ongoing projects

Why do we need this research?

Pre-eclampsia can be dangerous for both mother and baby, and is the cause of around 1 in 8 stillbirths in the UK. A woman with pre-eclampsia develops high blood pressure – or hypertension – in pregnancy and also has protein in her urine.

Pre-eclampsia can only be cured completely by delivering the baby and the placenta. This means that some babies have to be born prematurely and so are at risk of short-term complications and lifelong disabilities. It is vital that we find new treatments for pre-eclampsia so that we can prevent mothers and babies from becoming unwell, and reduce the number of babies dying before or shortly after birth.

We think that pre-eclampsia happens because the blood vessels that supply the placenta do not develop properly, which prevents the placenta from getting enough oxygen and nutrients. This can cause problems for the baby and can also make the mother’s arteries behave abnormally leading to high blood pressure. Finding new treatments that improve blood pressure control in pregnancy may therefore lead to better outcomes for women with pre-eclampsia.

What’s happening in this project?

Blood pressure is controlled by the contraction and relaxation of small blood vessels in the body, a process that is coordinated by a series of ion channels (proteins that are embedded into the wall of cells, forming a passageway for things to move in and out). Our researchers think that one particular ion channel, called a BKCa channel, helps to relax blood vessels in pregnant women, including those with pre-eclampsia. Now, they want to find out more.

HBD-2 and neolignan-1 are molecules that can cause the BKCa channel to open; they have been shown to relax blood vessels and reduce blood pressure in animals. In this project, Tommy’s researchers will be working in the lab to find out if these treatments can relax blood vessels taken from pregnant women (with and without pre-eclampsia) at the time of caesarean section. The team will also give these drugs to pregnant animals with high blood pressure to find out whether they can reduce blood pressure without harming their babies.

What difference will this project make?

This project will show us whether drugs that act on the BKCa channel could be effective, safe treatments for pre-eclampsia. If the work is successful, the next step would be to carry out a clinical trial in women with pre-eclampsia. This could lead to the development of urgently needed treatments for these women that can improve outcomes for both mother and baby and reduce the risk of stillbirth.