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Ketone therapy may protect fetal growth in low-iron mothers

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional disorder worldwide and, in many cases, iron supplements can easily treat and cure it. However, pregnant women, who are very susceptible to low iron, are harder to treat — and the stakes are higher.

“What we know is that children of mothers who were anemic during pregnancy are at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular and kidney diseases,” says Shubham Soni an MD/PhD student with the University of Alberta Department of Pediatrics.

Iron supplements are seldom enough to raise blood iron levels adequately and come with side effects and health risks for both mothers and fetuses. After mulling over topics for his PhD dissertation, Soni wondered if ketone therapy might serve as an additional treatment for iron deficiency in pregnancy.

Ketones are chemicals produced by the liver when the body lacks glucose and needs an alternate energy source — a process called ketosis. This is the goal of the ketogenic or ‘keto’ diet, which involves restricting carbohydrates (which produce glucose) for weight loss purposes. However, ketones can also be given as supplements to provide health benefits without the risks associated with the classic keto diets.

Soni explains that, unlike a drug treatment, ketone therapy uses molecules that already exist in the body. “Your body knows how to make ketones, use ketones, and get rid of ketones when it needs to,” he says.

Research shows that ketones can change the way organs, like the heart and kidneys, metabolize energy and improve organ function. Other research suggests ketones may protect against inflammation and oxidative stress, two harmful effects of iron deficiency that contribute to cardiovascular and kidney problems.

After securing a WCHRI Graduate Studentship, Soni set out to test his hypothesis that ketones protect the heart and kidneys of a developing fetus from the negative effects of iron deficiency. Using an animal model, the study appears to support his hypothesis and suggests the treatment would have few side effects.

Soni explains that, unlike a drug treatment, ketone therapy uses molecules that already exist in the body. “Your body knows how to make ketones, use ketones, and get rid of ketones when it needs to,” he says. That said, more research is needed to prove the safety and efficacy of ketone therapy in pregnant humans.

While most PhD students work on projects laid out by their supervisor’s research program, Soni conceptualized a potential application of ketone therapy in a tangential area to answer these questions.

WCHRI support provided essential funding for his dissertation research but also boosted his morale. “It gave me a lot of confidence that, as a graduate student, I can rationalize important new ideas and properly put a proposal together — that I understand what I’m doing and can convey that message,” Soni says. Additionally, he was able to leverage his WCHRI award to earn the prestigious Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship and Dorothy J. Killam Memorial Graduate Prize.

As his PhD work comes to an end, Soni will soon shift his focus to completing medical school and becoming a physician. Eventually, he plans to become a clinician-scientist, with a focus on translational therapies, which use existing scientific evidence to treat health problems.

“My interest is in what we can do right now. What potential options are out there that we can immediately use to treat patients?”


Shubham Soni is supervised by Jason Dyck. His Graduate Studentship was funded by the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.

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