The SafePreg team is competing in the final of the Helsinki Challenge science competition, arranged to mark the University of Helsinki’s anniversary year. The team is working on a smartphone application to help pregnant women. The application can read the barcode on a food product the pregnant woman is interested in and will check to see if the product contains a substance known as glycyrrhizin.
Derived from liquorice root, glycyrrhizin should be avoided by pregnant women as it may harm the fetus.
Liquorice itself or cravings for it are not major problems outside the Nordics, and even here the popular sweet is easy to avoid. However, glycyrrhizin is also present in many other products: more than 400 everyday goods found in any grocery store. Producers are not even required to mention it in the list of ingredients, if the amount is small enough.
“The SafePreg application provides an easy way to make safer choices in this regard,” says Academy Professor Katri Räikkönen, who is the team leader.
Glycyrrhizin also increases blood pressure, meaning that the SafePreg application would also benefit people with high blood pressure, a common ailment in the western world.
Stress gets to the fetus
Glycyrrhizin interferes with the stress filtration system of the placenta, resulting in harmful effects to the fetus. This means that an unnecessarily large amount of stress hormones from the mother’s blood stream can enter the fetus.
Professor Jonathan R. Seckl, Vice-Rector of the University of Edinburgh and member of the SafePreg team, has established in his research that in mice, the lack of such a filtration mechanism harms the offspring. The problems were similar to the effects of malnutrition during pregnancy.
Professor Seckl also discovered that glycyrrhizin inhibits the functioning of an enzyme central to the filtration process, thus opening a path for stress hormones to enter the fetus.
Further research has shown that a similar effect inhibiting stress filtration can also be observed in the human placenta. Thus the researchers began to wonder if eating large amounts of liquorice during pregnancy could harm the fetus.
“We then conducted an extensive epidemiological study in Helsinki, and discovered detrimental effects. For example, liquorice was found to hinder the child’s cognitive development and increase hyperactivity and attention deficits,” Professor Räikkönen explains the research background of the SafePreg project.
First pregnant women, then other special groups
A working prototype of the SafePreg application already exists, and user feedback has been collected.
“We already have a comprehensive database of products containing glycyrrhizin," Professor Räikkönen explains, “but we have to keep updating it as new products are launched.”
“Our goal is to create a much broader database of foodstuffs to be avoided. Our primary target group is pregnant women, but later the application can be amended to the needs of other special groups.”
“To reach our goal, food producers and importers must be included in the process to compile and maintain the database. The companies must see a benefit from registering their product for our database – for example, the company could at the same time suggest a suitable alternative to the product to be avoided,” Räikkönen muses.
One of the biggest food producers in Finland to operate internationally, Fazer, has already joined as a partner and is helping SafePreg develop the database to be as easy to use as possible.
The SafePreg application will be free, so where can will the funding come from? “We are looking at different options. The SafePreg website would be a good platform for targeted advertising. We could also consider selling licenses. Many grocery store groups have their own smartphone applications that could be attached to this one,” Räikkönen lists.“Of course we would also welcome angel investors!”
The SafePreg team has plans in place to move the project forward. “We will establish a company to develop the product and take it to market. That part of the work requires the kind of expertise we as researchers do not have.”