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The findings highlight the potential impact of exposure to toxic metals such as cadmium on adverse pregnancy outcomes.

Dr. Kim Boggess

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – including UNC OB-GYN’s Dr. Kim Boggess – has demonstrated for the first time an association between levels of the toxic metal cadmium in the placenta during pregnancy and increased risk of the mother developing preeclampsia.

The study was led by UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Rebecca Fry, PhD, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering, and published online Sept. 30 in the journal PLOS One.

The findings highlight the potential impact of exposure to toxic metals such as cadmium on adverse pregnancy outcomes and the potentially important role essential metals could play in reducing the risk of preeclampsia, a potentially dangerous pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure.

Boggess, professor of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at UNC, has spent more than 20 years studying infectious and immune complications of pregnancy, including preeclampsia, and was the first investigator to report an association between maternal periodontal infection and preeclampsia.

“This study was a natural next step to begin to understand potentially modifiable environmental factors associated with preeclampsia,” she said.

Researchers selected 172 subjects with and without preeclampsia for a case-control study from the larger Maternal Oral Therapy to Reduce Obstetric Risk (MOTOR) study at UNC. Researchers used sensitive trace metals analysis to measure levels of cadmium, selenium and zinc in placental tissue obtained after delivery.

“The MOTOR study was a prospective randomized clinical trial of treatment of maternal periodontal disease to deduce preterm birth risk,” said Boggess. “As part of that study numerous maternal and fetal biologic specimens were collected and pregnancy outcomes were adjudicated by research team.”

Boggess said interdisciplinary research was key to solving such complex problems. This particular study engaged researchers from the Gillings School, UNC OB-GYN and UNC’s School of Dentistry.

“We need to capitalize on the interface between disciplines. Interdisciplinary research has the potential to reduce fragmentation in women’s health issues and leads to improved health and health outcomes for women,” said Boggess. “Performing research in this manner supports creativity and allows us to tell the same story from different perspectives, which deepens the information gained.”

Read more about the study in this post from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.