Based on clinical data, 10% of pregnancies encounter hypertension during pregnancy that include pre-existing and gestational hypertension, preeclampsia and eclampsia. 

At the forefront of hypertensive pregnancy research, University of Minnesota Medical School faculty members Jean Regal, PhD, professor and head of the Department of Biomedical Sciences, and Emilyn Alejandro, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology, are teaming up to lead the way in understanding the mechanisms of Type 2 diabetes in offspring born from hypertensive pregnancies. 

“The first nine months of your life may determine the rest of your life,” Dr. Alejandro explains. “Your mother’s health during pregnancy can affect your own health as you age, making this a critical women’s health issue.” 

Weaving together their expertise, the laboratories of Dr. Alejandro, an expert in diabetes research, and Dr. Regal, who specializes in innate immunity and pregnancy-induced hypertension, will work together to determine if manipulations of the immune system will rescue the number of insulin-producing ß cells in offspring following hypertension in pregnancy, thus preventing the development of Type 2 diabetes later in life. ß cells in the pancreas produce insulin, a hormone that regulates glucose concentration in our body. 

“It’s essential for me to have someone like Dr. Regal and her expertise,” Dr. Alejandro said. “It’s been a special opportunity for us to combine our different backgrounds to conduct this research that no one really considered in the past.”

Their research is being supported by a two-year R21 grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) in a first-of-its-kind project looking into the pancreas development of newborns and adult animals, as well as preventive measures to mitigate hypertension and Type 2 diabetes. 

“This grant is building on the fact that hypertension during pregnancy reduces insulin-producing ß cells in the pancreas of the offspring,” Dr. Regal said. “By manipulating the innate immune system in the lab, our goal is to identify therapeutic targets to reverse that problem.” 

Drs. Regal and Alejandro are also driven to impact patients in the clinical setting to minimize the long-term health risks associated with hypertension during pregnancy in offspring as they grow up. 

“Not only is it important for parents to know about these risk factors, but we also want to educate healthcare providers on the importance of monitoring and informing patients of the potential risks of developing obesity and Type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Alejandro said. “There’s an estimation that developing obesity and diabetes comes from five percent of our genetics and the rest is environmental factors that we may be able to modify. So, we think early interventions will have a huge impact on the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes later in life, as well as the health of the mother at postpartum.”