Maternal and child health research gets $9.8-million boost

August 19, 2016

The Ottawa Hospital ranks well above national average in most recent competition from Canadian Institutes of Health Research

If folic acid prevents birth defects during the first trimester, should it be taken throughout pregnancy? Dr. Mark Walker and Dr. Shi Wu Wen at The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa can now definitively answer this question after being awarded a $9.8 million Foundation Grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). The grant is one of 13 recently awarded to The Ottawa Hospital in CIHR’s latest competition, worth a total of $27 million.

“People think folic acid is a harmless supplement, so many mothers take it even after the recommended first trimester and in higher doses than recommended” said Dr. Walker, a senior scientist and Department Chief of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Newborn Care at The Ottawa Hospital and Department Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Ottawa. “The results of this study will tell us once and for all how continuing to take folic acid during pregnancy impacts a mother and her child.”

In an observational study of 2,950 mothers in Ottawa and Kingston published in 2008, Drs. Wen and Walker found that taking folic acid in the early second trimester lowered a mother’s risk of preeclampsia by 63 per cent. Preeclampsia is a disorder that affects about five per cent of mothers and is responsible for a third of all pregnancy-related deaths worldwide.

To confirm these finding, in 2011 the research team recruited 2,464 mothers at risk of preeclampsia from five different countries in a randomized, controlled, double-blinded trial. Half of the mothers took a high dose of folic acid throughout their pregnancy, and the rest stopped taking it after the first trimester. Now that the last of these mothers has delivered her baby, the team can begin to analyze data on the mothers’ health and submit their findings for publication.

In the meantime, funds from the CIHR Foundation Grant will let the team follow the babies born to these mothers to see how folic acid affects their health and brain development.

“Everyone who treats pregnant women is waiting for an answer to this question,” said Dr. Wen, a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa. “We have 70 different study sites around the world, from Jamaica to Australia, so our findings will have an impact on patient care not only in Canada, but around the world.”

The folic acid study is part of a larger maternal and child health research program funded by the CIHR grant. In this program, the researchers will also develop benchmarks for caesarean section, the most common inpatient surgery in Ontario. In addition, they will study the health impacts of planned C-sections that are not medically indicated, and identify the best way and time for mothers with obesity to deliver safely.

“The goal of our research program is to identify the right intervention, at the right time, for the right population,” said Dr. Shi Wu Wen. “Decisions made during pregnancy can last a child’s lifetime, so it’s worth getting them right.”

“Dr. Wen and Dr. Walker’s folic acid research is a flagship project of our hospital,” said Dr. Duncan Stewart, Executive-vice President of Research and senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa. “This grant, one of the largest CIHR has ever awarded to The Ottawa Hospital, is further proof that Dr. Wen and Dr. Walker are international leaders in maternal and child health research.”

In total, The Ottawa Hospital was awarded 13 grants worth more than $27 million in the most recent competition from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. In the Foundation arm of the competition, The Ottawa Hospital’s success rate was 33 percent compared to a national average of 13 percent, while in the Project arm of the competition, it was 19 percent compared to 16 percent.

Local collaborators: Laura Gaudet, Darine El-Chaâr, Dean Fergusson, Monica Taljaard, David Moher Thierry Lacaze, Deshayne Fell, Sandra Dunn

About The Ottawa Hospital: Inspired by research. Driven by compassion. The Ottawa Hospital is one of Canada’s largest learning and research hospitals with over 1,100 beds, approximately 12,000 staff and an annual budget of over $1.2 billion. Our focus on research and learning helps us develop new and innovative ways to treat patients and improve care. As a multi-campus hospital, affiliated with the University of Ottawa, we deliver specialized care to the Eastern Ontario region, but our techniques and research discoveries are adopted around the world. We engage the community at all levels to support our vision for better patient care. See for more information about research at The Ottawa Hospital.

About the University of Ottawa: The University of Ottawa is home to over 50,000 students, faculty and staff, who live, work and study in both French and English. Our campus is a crossroads of cultures and ideas, where bold minds come together to inspire game-changing ideas. We are one of Canada’s top 10 research universities—our professors and researchers explore new approaches to today’s challenges. One of a handful of Canadian universities ranked among the top 200 in the world, we attract exceptional thinkers and welcome diverse perspectives from across the globe.

Media Contact: Amelia Buchanan, Senior Communication Specialist, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute;; Office: 613-798-5555 x 73687; Cell: 613-297-8315