- NHS trial has been started in attempt to halt obesity epidemic
- If it is a success, treatment could be widespread in five years
- But there is unease over problem that could be solved by exercise and diet
PUBLISHED: 16:33 EST, 1 April 2012 | UPDATED: 13:52 EST, 2 April 2012
Babies are being medicated in the womb in an attempt to prevent them from being born obese.
In a world first, dangerously overweight mothers-to-be in four British cities have started taking a diabetes drug during their pregnancy.
The doctors behind the controversial NHS trial say that obesity among pregnant women is reaching epidemic proportions and they need to act now to protect the health of tomorrow’s children.
However, there is likely to be unease about resorting to medication in pregnancy for a problem that can be treated through changes in diet and exercise.
If the strategy is a success, the treatment could be in widespread use in as little as five years, with tens of thousands of overweight but otherwise healthy mothers-to-be drugged each year.
The Daily Mail recently revealed the rise of the ‘sumo baby’, with the number of newborns weighing more than 11lb soaring by 50 per cent over the last four years.
More than 15 per cent of pregnant women are obese. This raises their odds of dying in pregnancy, of their baby being stillborn and of a host of pregnancy complications, some of which can be fatal.
Big babies are around twice as likely to grow into overweight adults, suggesting obesity and the lifetime of ill-health it can bring is ‘programmed’ in the womb. The trial involves 400 pregnant women in Liverpool, Coventry, Sheffield and Edinburgh.
They have started taking metformin, which has been safely used by diabetics for decades and is cleared for the treatment of diabetes in pregnancy. It costs just pence per tablet.
Some of the participants have already had their babies but many more births will be needed before it is clear if the treatment works. Mothers-to-be elsewhere are due to take part.
The study aims to exploit the ability of metformin to lower levels of the hormone insulin in the bloodstream.
Obese women make more insulin than other mothers-to-be and this leads to a greater nutrition supply reaching the baby.
It is hoped that lowering levels of insulin will reduce the supply and so cut the odds of babies being born obese.
Treatment with metformin may redistribute the baby’s fat stores, reducing the deposits around the liver and other organs.
Study leader Professor Jane Norman of Edinburgh University said: ‘One of the challenges is that many women feel perfectly healthy but there is very good evidence that women who are obese have an increased risk of pregnancy problems and their babies are at risk, and we’d like to reduce that risk.’
Addressing concerns about unborn babies being medicated for a problem that many would say could be treated by diet and exercise, she said: ‘I absolutely support the improvement of diet and encouraging exercise.
‘But we are increasingly faced with women who start their pregnancy obese. Saying at that stage to eat less and exercise more is not particularly helpful.’
Obesity experts have welcomed the study, which is funded by the Medical Research Council, the NHS’s health research arm and the baby charity Tommy’s, saying that while the situation is not ideal, it needs to be tackled.
Patrick O’Brien of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists described the study as ‘very important’.
He said: ‘When you are overweight in pregnancy you are at increased risk of just about every complication you can think of.’