If a pregnant woman is stressed, her body produces lower quantities of a key enzyme that breaks down stress hormones and this limits the amount of active hormones that reach the baby’s blood supply.
Babies that are exposed to excessive stress hormones in the womb are often born underweight and have a greater risk of heart disease.
Edinburgh University researchers found that statins help to counteract the negative impact of stress hormones on fetal growth and heart development in mice.
The widely-prescribed medication, which is commonly used to treat heart disease and stroke, triggered production of a molecule, which stimulates the development of blood vessels in the placenta, according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
This re-establishes the blood supply, helping the normal development of the heart and allowing the baby to grow to a healthy birthweight. Professor Megan Holmes, from Edinburgh University, said: “These are very exciting results suggesting that there may finally be a potential therapy for women whose placenta is unable to maintain the normal growth of her baby.
“Although more work needs to be done to show statins are safe in human pregnancy, these results show a new way forward for the major unmet need of fetal growth retardation.”
Professor Jeremy Pearson, of the British Heart Foundation, welcomed the findings but called for more work into whether the drug would have the same effect on humans.