Which Meds are Safe When You’re Pregnant? Science Wants to Find Out
Sarah Mancoll was 22 years old when she noticed a bald spot on the back of her head. A dermatologist confirmed that it was alopecia aerata, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss.
Of 213 new drugs approved from 2003 to 2012, only five percent included any data from pregnant women.
She successfully treated the condition with corticosteroid shots for nearly 10 years. Then Mancoll and her husband began thinking about starting a family. Would the shots be safe for her while pregnant? For the fetus? What about breastfeeding?
Mancoll consulted her primary care physician, her dermatologist, even a pediatrician. Without clinical data, no one could give her a definitive answer, so she stopped treatment to be "on the safe side." By the time her son was born, she'd lost at least half her hair. She returned to her Washington, D.C., public policy job two months later entirely bald—and without either eyebrows or eyelashes.
After having two more children in quick succession, Mancoll recently resumed the shots but didn't forget her experience. Today, she is an advocate for including more pregnant and lactating women in clinical studies so they can have more information about therapies than she did.
"I live a very privileged life, and I'll do just fine with or without hair, but it's not just about me," Mancoll said. "It's about a huge population of women who are being disenfranchised…They're invisible."
About 4 million women give birth each year in the United States, and many face medical conditions, from hypertension and diabetes to psychiatric disorders. A 2011 study showed that most women reported taking at least one medication while pregnant between 1976 and 2008. But for decades, pregnant and lactating women have been largely excluded from clinical drug studies that rigorously test medications for safety and effectiveness.
An estimated 98 percent of government-approved drug treatments between 2000 and 2010 had insufficient data to determine risk to the fetus, and close to 75 percent had no human pregnancy data at all. All told, of 213 new pharmaceuticals approved from 2003 to 2012, only five percent included any data from pregnant women.
But recent developments suggest that could be changing. Amid widespread concerns about increased maternal mortality rates, women's health advocates, physicians, and researchers are sensing and encouraging a cultural shift toward protecting women through responsible research instead of from research.
"The question is not whether to do research with pregnant women, but how," Anne Drapkin Lyerly, professor and associate director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote last year in an op-ed. "These advances are essential. It is well past time—and it is morally imperative—for research to benefit pregnant women."
"In excluding pregnant women from drug trials to protect them from experimentation, we subject them to uncontrolled experimentation."
To that end, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' Committee on Ethics acknowledged that research trials need to be better designed so they don't "inappropriately constrain the reproductive choices of study participants or unnecessarily exclude pregnant women." A federal task force also called for significantly expanded research and the removal of regulatory barriers that make it difficult for pregnant and lactating women to participate in research.
Several months ago, a government change to a regulation known as the Common Rule took effect, removing pregnant women as a "vulnerable population" in need of special protections -- a designation that had made it more difficult to enroll them in clinical drug studies. And just last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued new draft guidances for industry on when and how to include pregnant and lactating women in clinical trials.
Inclusion is better than the absence of data on their treatment, said Catherine Spong, former chair of the federal task force.
"It's a paradox," said Spong, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and chief of maternal fetal medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "There is a desire to protect women and fetuses from harm, which is translated to a reluctance to include them in research. By excluding them, the evidence for their care is limited."
Jacqueline Wolf, a professor of the history of medicine at Ohio University, agreed.
"In excluding pregnant women from drug trials to protect them from experimentation, we subject them to uncontrolled experimentation," she said. "We give them the medication without doing any research, and that's dangerous."
Women, of course, don't stop getting sick or having chronic medical conditions just because they are pregnant or breastfeeding, and conditions during pregnancy can affect a baby's health later in life. Evidence-based data is important for other reasons, too.
Pregnancy can dramatically change a woman's physiology, affecting how drugs act on her body and how her body acts or reacts to drugs. For instance, pregnant bodies can more quickly clear out medications such as glyburide, used during diabetes in pregnancy to stabilize high blood-sugar levels, which can be toxic to the fetus and harmful to women. That means a regular dose of the drug may not be enough to control blood sugar and prevent poor outcomes.
Pregnant patients also may be reluctant to take needed drugs for underlying conditions (and doctors may be hesitant to prescribe them), which in turn can cause more harm to the woman and fetus than had they been treated. For example, women who have severe asthma attacks while pregnant are at a higher risk of having low-birthweight babies, and pregnant women with uncontrolled diabetes in early pregnancy have more than four times the risk of birth defects.
Current clinical trials involving pregnant women are assessing treatments for obstructive sleep apnea, postpartum hemorrhage, lupus, and diabetes.
For Kate O'Brien, taking medication during her pregnancy was a matter of life and death. A freelance video producer who lives in New Jersey, O'Brien was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2015 after she became pregnant with her second child, a boy. Even as she signed hospital consent forms, she had no idea if the treatment would harm him.
"It's a really awful experience," said O'Brien, who now is active with We are TB, an advocacy and support network. "All they had to tell me about the medication was just that women have been taking it for a really long time all over the world. That was the best they could do."
More and more doctors, researchers and women's health organizations and advocates are calling that unacceptable.
By indicating that filling current knowledge gaps is "a critical public health need," the FDA is signaling its support for advancing research with pregnant women, said Lyerly, also co-founder of the Second Wave Initiative, which promotes fair representation of the health interests of pregnant women in biomedical research and policies. "It's a very important shift."
Research with pregnant women can be done ethically, Lyerly said, whether by systematically collecting data from those already taking medications or enrolling pregnant women in studies of drugs or vaccines in development.
Current clinical trials involving pregnant women are assessing treatments for obstructive sleep apnea, postpartum hemorrhage, lupus, and diabetes. Notable trials in development target malaria and HIV prevention in pregnancy.
"It clearly is doable to do this research, and test trials are important to provide evidence for treatment," Spong said. "If we don't have that evidence, we aren't making the best educated decisions for women."
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms are well controlled and when they prevent normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year. A company in Japan, Sumitomo, is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re inducing pluripotent stem cells made from adults’ blood or skin and then reprogramming them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded but, he says, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”
Story by Freethink
Try burning an iron metal ingot and you’ll have to wait a long time — but grind it into a powder and it will readily burst into flames. That’s how sparklers work: metal dust burning in a beautiful display of light and heat. But could we burn iron for more than fun? Could this simple material become a cheap, clean, carbon-free fuel?
In new experiments — conducted on rockets, in microgravity — Canadian and Dutch researchers are looking at ways of boosting the efficiency of burning iron, with a view to turning this abundant material — the fourth most common in the Earth’s crust, about about 5% of its mass — into an alternative energy source.
Iron as a fuel
Iron is abundantly available and cheap. More importantly, the byproduct of burning iron is rust (iron oxide), a solid material that is easy to collect and recycle. Neither burning iron nor converting its oxide back produces any carbon in the process.
Iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again.
Iron has a high energy density: it requires almost the same volume as gasoline to produce the same amount of energy. However, iron has poor specific energy: it’s a lot heavier than gas to produce the same amount of energy. (Think of picking up a jug of gasoline, and then imagine trying to pick up a similar sized chunk of iron.) Therefore, its weight is prohibitive for many applications. Burning iron to run a car isn’t very practical if the iron fuel weighs as much as the car itself.
In its powdered form, however, iron offers more promise as a high-density energy carrier or storage system. Iron-burning furnaces could provide direct heat for industry, home heating, or to generate electricity.
Plus, iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again (as long as you’ve got a source of clean electricity or green hydrogen). When there’s excess electricity available from renewables like solar and wind, for example, rust could be converted back into iron powder, and then burned on demand to release that energy again.
However, these methods of recycling rust are very energy intensive and inefficient, currently, so improvements to the efficiency of burning iron itself may be crucial to making such a circular system viable.
The science of discrete burning
Powdered particles have a high surface area to volume ratio, which means it is easier to ignite them. This is true for metals as well.
Under the right circumstances, powdered iron can burn in a manner known as discrete burning. In its most ideal form, the flame completely consumes one particle before the heat radiating from it combusts other particles in its vicinity. By studying this process, researchers can better understand and model how iron combusts, allowing them to design better iron-burning furnaces.
Discrete burning is difficult to achieve on Earth. Perfect discrete burning requires a specific particle density and oxygen concentration. When the particles are too close and compacted, the fire jumps to neighboring particles before fully consuming a particle, resulting in a more chaotic and less controlled burn.
Presently, the rate at which powdered iron particles burn or how they release heat in different conditions is poorly understood. This hinders the development of technologies to efficiently utilize iron as a large-scale fuel.
Burning metal in microgravity
In April, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a suborbital “sounding” rocket, carrying three experimental setups. As the rocket traced its parabolic trajectory through the atmosphere, the experiments got a few minutes in free fall, simulating microgravity.
One of the experiments on this mission studied how iron powder burns in the absence of gravity.
In microgravity, particles float in a more uniformly distributed cloud. This allows researchers to model the flow of iron particles and how a flame propagates through a cloud of iron particles in different oxygen concentrations.
Existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Insights into how flames propagate through iron powder under different conditions could help design much more efficient iron-burning furnaces.
Clean and carbon-free energy on Earth
Various businesses are looking at ways to incorporate iron fuels into their processes. In particular, it could serve as a cleaner way to supply industrial heat by burning iron to heat water.
For example, Dutch brewery Swinkels Family Brewers, in collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology, switched to iron fuel as the heat source to power its brewing process, accounting for 15 million glasses of beer annually. Dutch startup RIFT is running proof-of-concept iron fuel power plants in Helmond and Arnhem.
As researchers continue to improve the efficiency of burning iron, its applicability will extend to other use cases as well. But is the infrastructure in place for this transition?
Often, the transition to new energy sources is slowed by the need to create new infrastructure to utilize them. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with switching from fossil fuels to iron. Since the ideal temperature to burn iron is similar to that for hydrocarbons, existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.