Lack of oxygen may have a profound effect
Babies whose mothers develop pre-eclampsia in pregnancy may be at greater risk of cardiovascular disease in later life, a study suggests.
Pre-eclampsia, a relatively common pregnancy complication, or problems with the placenta can reduce the amount of oxygen the foetus receives.
This appears to retard growth and damage the baby's cardiovascular, metabolic and endocrine systems.
The findings are to be presented at a Society for Endocrinology meeting.
A team from the University of Cambridge looked at pregnancies at high altitude, where oxygen is restricted, and conducted tests on pregnant animals.
They observed changes in the way the foetus grew when oxygen was restricted, and crucially alterations in the way key systems in the body developed.
This, they speculated, could well put the baby at risk of disease - and in particular cardiovascular problems - in later life.
"We have known for a while that changes in maternal nutrition can affect foetal development and influence disease susceptibility later in life, but relatively little work has investigated how low oxygen levels in the womb may affect infant development," said lead researcher Dr Dino Giussani.
"Our research shows that changes to the amount of oxygen available in the womb can have a profound influence on the development of the foetus in both the short - and long - term, and trigger an early origin of heart disease."
The researchers said their work on animals suggested it may be possible to reverse the damage caused by a lack of oxygen by boosting beneficial nutrients such as Vitamins C and E, selenium and lycopene in the mother's diet.
Dr Giussani said: "This may halt the development of heart disease at its very origin, bringing preventative medicine back into the womb."
Two recent studies have shown a link between pre-eclampsia and the maternal risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Most common cause of death in the UK, accounting for 40% of deaths
Almost 2.6 million people are affected by heart and circulatory conditions in the UK
Someone has a heart attack every two seconds
However, it is unclear whether the condition itself is a risk factor, or whether those who develop the condition while pregnant are more prone to problems in the first place.
Mr David Williams, a consultant obstetric physician at the Institute for Women's Health, London, said babies born to women who developed pre-eclampsia during pregnancy tended to be smaller than average.
He said there was a clear link between low birth weight, irrespective of cause, and future increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
However, he cautioned against using antioxidant supplements as a way to try to prevent foetal growth restriction or pre-eclampsia.
"Maybe a small amout of oxidant stress is necessary for a healthy pregnancy," he said.
A Cochrane review of the evidence published in January said the evidence did not support routine use of anti-oxidants to reduce the risks of pre-eclampsia in pregnant women.