One in a hundred babies are born with a structural problem in their heart known as a congenital heart defect (CHD). Some of these are caused by inherited gene mutations, while others are caused by changes in the baby's environment in the womb very early in pregnancy. Over the past five years, Associate Professor Duncan Sparrow has been working to shed light on how these genetic and environmental factors can perturb embryonic heart development.
A key breakthrough for the Sparrow Group came when a previously unsuspected environmental risk factor for having a child with a heart defect was potentially identified, with findings published in Nature Communications last year. In an animal model, it was demonstrated that if the mother is iron deficient, more than half of her offspring have severe heart defects. Prof Sparrow said: “Iron deficiency is relatively common in women of childbearing age, especially in developing nations. It is also easy to fix, so if we can show this is also true in humans, then we may be able to reduce the number of babies born with heart defects by simple iron supplementation early in pregnancy.”
The British Heart Foundation have now renewed Prof Sparrow’s BHF Senior Basic Science Fellowship for five more years from January 2023. The award will enable Prof Sparrow and his team to first investigate if their iron deficiency results are also true in humans via an epidemiology study of the UK population. If they are proved true, this will be a major discovery of an entirely new and severely prevalent risk factor for congenital heart disease in humans. Secondly, he plans to investigate how two other environmental risk factors cause heart defects. This could shed an enormous degree of insight given the cause of CHD in as many as two-thirds of cases is often unknown.
The BHF have been incredibly generous to me since I arrived in the UK seven years ago. This has allowed me to set up my own research group at the University of Oxford, and start working in this under-appreciated area. Having my fellowship extended for another five years by the BHF is a fantastic vote of confidence in my research, and hopefully I can repay this confidence by making more discoveries in this field. My ultimate aim is to develop preventative strategies to reduce the prevalence of this type of congenital heart defects. - Associate Professor Duncan Sparrow