UA Professor Receives Gates Foundation Funding for Healthy Growth Research

Sean Limesand, associate professor in the department of animal sciences and member of the UA’s BIO5 Institute, was awarded more than $900,000 for his research on the fetal response to stress hormones in the womb.
Dec. 17, 2012
Sean Limesand
Sean Limesand

The University of Arizona will receive funding through the Achieving Healthy Growth program within the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative. This initiative was launched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to overcome persistent bottlenecks preventing the creation of new and better health solutions for the developing world.

Sean Limesand, associate professor in the department of animal sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and member of the UA’s BIO5 Institute, will pursue a research project titled “Perinatal treatment of adrenergic dysregulation to correct skeletal muscle metabolism in intrauterine growth restricted infants.”

The four-year grant, funded at more than $900,000, targets the fetal response to stress hormones in the womb that can damage the body’s normal growth and functioning.

“Lifelong metabolic complications are prevalent in individuals who were growth restricted in utero,” Limesand said. Our work indicates that stress hormones, such as norepinephrine, play an important role in regulating fetal metabolism. Chronic exposure to high levels of these hormones can alter responsiveness and reprogram growth and metabolism, not only in the fetus but in the newborn and infant. We are grateful to the Gates Foundation for taking bold steps to identify and test new targets for intervention to improve infant health.”      

Fetal growth restriction – affecting more than 24 percent of babies born in developing countries – is often associated with deficiencies in the nutrient supply to the developing child. A fetus must adapt to limitations and spare nutrients for critical functions at the expense of growth. Such hormonal adaptations, if permanently altered, will affect fetal skeletal muscle and create a lasting imprint in an individual’s metabolism, according to Limesand. 

The goal of the Healthy Growth grant program is to discover the causes of faltering growth during the first 1,000 days of life and to identify effective and affordable interventions to promote healthy growth. Limesand’s project is one of seven grants announced this month.

“Safeguarding the health of young children is one of the world’s most urgent priorities and a core focus of our work,” said Chris Wilson, director of discovery and translational sciences at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We hope the suite of grants announced today will give us a deeper understanding of the reasons underlying stunted growth in children in the developing world and how this can be predicted to guide new approaches to improve the health and development of these children.”

Limesand has studied placental and fetal physiology for more than 15 years, focusing on pathological complications of pregnancy that affect the endocrinology and metabolism in the fetus. His recent work on animal models has identified endocrine stress responses to manage the redistribution of nutrients in growth-restricted fetuses.

Limesand and UA co-investigators Professors Erik Henriksen and Ron Allen plan to investigate whether an intervention to correct the adrenaline hormone-related dysregulation can improve infant health.

Specifically, they aim to improve muscle growth and metabolism in an animal model of fetal growth restriction in order to correct the impairments and lower the risk for metabolic disorders. Through collaborations on this initiative, the researchers plan to identify specific biomarkers that demonstrate impaired norepinephrine responsiveness in growth restricted infants. Then the team will test well-characterized drugs to correct skeletal muscle metabolism.

“Findings obtained from this project will substantially increase our knowledge of the mechanisms underlying intrauterine growth restriction and could lead to new treatment options,” Limesand said. “Our goal is healthier babies."

Through Grand Challenges, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with other Grand Challenge partners, such as USAID , Grand Challenges Canada and Brazil’s Ministry of Health, are committed to seeking out and rewarding not only established researchers in science and technology, but also young investigators, entrepreneurs and innovators to help expand the pipeline of ideas to fight diseases that claim millions of lives each year.