HUNDREDS of overweight mothers-to-be are being given metformin up to three times a day during their pregnancy to stop them from having obese babies as part of a controversial trial in the UK. The trial involves 400 obese but non-diabetic volunteers at hospitals in Liverpool, Edinburgh and Coventry.
Half will take metformin from around 12 weeks into their pregnancy and half will take a placebo. Their health and their babies’ health will be monitored and the results are expected in four years. It is hoped the treatment will prevent the birth of overweight babies and bring down the need to carry out caesarean sections as well as preeclampsia.
The latest figures show that almost half of women of childbearing age in Britain are overweight or obese and more than 15 percent 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.
Indeed, one of the most alarming facts to emerge after the trails were announced is that each year the Liverpool Women’s Hospital, for example, cares for more than 500 pregnant women who have a body mass index of more than 40 – which translates as severely obese.
Doctors believe many overweight adults can trace their problems back to the womb, when the fetus absorbs too many sugars and fats because of the high levels of insulin in their mother’s blood. But rather than trying to help the expectant mother lose weight, the drug would help keep the weight of the unborn baby down by reducing the levels of blood sugar passed to babies in the womb
Metformin, long cleared for the treatment of diabetes in pregnancy, has been safely used by diabetics for decades and the UK researchers think early intervention administering it to obese expectant mothers could save youngsters from a lifetime of weight problems and ill-health.
The doctors behind the trial say obesity among pregnant women is reaching epidemic proportions and they need to protect the health of tomorrow’s children. However, many healthy women are likely to be uneasy about mass medication in pregnancy for a problem that can be treated through changes to diet and exercise.
Ian Campbell, medical director of charity Weight Concern, said: “In an ideal world we would be in a position to assist women to be of a near-normal bodyweight prior to conception. But that is not realistic in the current environment. The reality is that many women go through pregnancy carrying too much body fat and it is important we do something about it because it causes serious problems.”
Defending the exercise which has raised the hackles of several groups, Andrew Weeks, who is leading the trial, said: “It is about trying to improve outcomes in pregnancy for women who are overweight. The problem is babies tend to be larger and many of the downsides of being overweight during pregnancy relate to the birth.”
Documents for the trial state: “Rates of obesity in adults and children are rising exponentially in the UK, as in other developed nations, and there are major causes for concern. The problem of maternal obesity, leading to programming of future life obesity risk in offspring, and manifest by excess birth weight, is reaching epidemic proportions. We believe that metformin will likely be an effective therapy in interrupting this cycle.”
Professor Norman, of Edinburgh University, said metformin was judged as a safe drug but the trial is needed to ensure the benefits outweighed any risks. She added that if the trial does show metformin to be of benefit, it is unlikely to work in all women and is most likely to be prescribed alongside advice on diet and exercise.
Nonetheless, women rightfully feel “uneasy” about the trial, said Alison Wetton, CEO of Britain’s fastest growing weight loss organization, All About Weight. “No mother-to-be likes to take medication, and the fact that the widely-used diabetes pill, metformin, is being trialed to prevent obese babies being born to overweight mothers is disturbing to me, and I am sure most other women as well,” she said.
Will Williams, scientific advisor for All About Weight, said that although there were “reasonable grounds” for the trial, it was “a shame that it is needed at all.” He said women wanting to conceive could instead lose weight by following a healthy weight loss plan, including diet and exercise, and “thus achieve all the things that the metformin trial is hoping to do, without the risks or costs of adding a drug with uncertain long term effects.”
“This would be far preferable to popping a pill that may help pregnancy outcomes but is unlikely to break the cycle of an unhealthy lifestyle leading to overweight children and the continuing rise of obesity and diabetes in the general population,” he stressed.