Cork-based professor looks to innovation to make pregnancy safer

27 Mar 2015

Prof Louise Kenny, co-leader of the Health Research Board Perinatal Clinical Trial Network, and consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Cork University Hospital and professor of obstetrics at University College Cork

Inspirefest speaker Prof Louise Kenny is looking at new ways to tackle complications during pregnancy to help keep mothers and babies healthy.

Could Viagra help in pregnancies where the baby is growing too slowly in the womb? A new clinical trial is about to put it to the test.

“Most people are familiar with the drug,” says Prof Louise Kenny, who co-leads the Health Research Board Perinatal Clinical Trial Network that will co-ordinate the study. “We are using it for the treatment of babies with very severe in-utero growth restriction.”

Why would sildenafil citrate, which causes such excitement in men, be useful in that situation? It’s because Viagra opens blood vessels, and the logic is that increased blood flow to the womb could help boost growth, explains Kenny, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Cork University Hospital and professor of obstetrics at University College Cork.

She first started thinking about using sildenafil citrate to help growth in pregnancy when her brother read her PhD in the late 1990s. He had been involved in the insight that the drug, which Pfizer had been exploring for cardiovascular applications, had a rather interesting side effect of prolonged erections in men, and the rest is history.

“In my study we were looking at vasoconstriction (lack of blood flow) in utero,” she recalls.

“He proofread a few chapters of the PhD and pointed out that we had got this issue where you have vasoconstriction, and this was a drug which causes vasodilatation (increased blood flow) in the urogenital tract.”

Several years on, enough proof has amassed to carry out a randomised controlled trial, according to Kenny, and it will be carried out in Ireland with the Netherlands, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

INFANT is growing

It’s one of several projects that Kenny has on the go as co-director of the Irish Centre for Fetal and Neonatal Translational Research or INFANT. While most pregnancies progress without major complication, almost one in five face issues from pre-eclampsia, premature birth or fetal growth restriction, and one in 20 newborns experience asphyxia (lack of oxygen) at birth raising the risk of brain injury and seizures.

It’s against this backdrop that Kenny and Prof Geraldine Boylan set up INFANT in 2013, and the research now spans pregnancy through birth to infancy and follow-ups to childhood.

Recent and current projects include developing a blood test in pregnancy to save lives by identifying women at risk of developing pre-eclampsia, a potentially life-threatening condition; a blood test to help predict if a baby will be born too early and, just this month, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, TD, announced at the St Patrick’s Day festival events in Washington, DC, that INFANT and IBM are to partner on a connected-health project to see if it would be helpful for pregnant mothers with hypertension or pre-eclampsia to monitor their blood pressure at home.

The centre also focuses on the weeks after a baby is born, developing new approaches to identify babies that need help if they have experienced a lack of oxygen at birth, and cot-side technology to monitor at-risk babies for brain seizures.

“We are now halfway through the first funding cycle and the centre will soon include around 100 researchers,” says Kenny. “We are getting up to full speed.”

The phenomenal growth of the centre is reflected in Kenny and Boylan’s dedicated meetings.

“We try and meet every day for a coffee, then we would have meetings at the start of a week, where we can think about all the things that are going on,” explains Kenny. “That weekly meeting started out as an hour, but now it takes the whole of Monday morning. It’s a good complaint to have.”

Inspiring invitation

Kenny is due to speak at Silicon Republic’s Inspirefest 2015 this June, and she recalls how reading about the event stopped her in her tracks.

“I got the invitation and I was reading the part about reversing the usual ratio of female participation and who was going to be there and I just said yes, I want to be in the room with these women,” she says.

“I am heavily involved in Athena SWAN and myself and Geraldine work hard to tackle issues of diversity. We have got a mountain to climb and I think the whole ethos of what the Inspire meeting is about is really important.”

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Inspirefest 2015 is Silicon Republic’s unique international sci-tech event running 18-19 June in Dublin, connecting professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity. Buy your early bird tickets now! Get in early and grab the ‘Two-for-one’ tickets before the end of March. You don’t want to miss this!

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication