Dr Francois Sousa dos Santos, Borne PhD student, has been working as an Obstetrics and Gynaecology trainee in East London for the past three years. Originally from Portugal, he has recently moved to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital to join Professor Mark Johnson’s research team at Borne to study the effect of heart disease on pregnancy. Besides undertaking a higher research degree at Imperial College, Francois also works as an Obstetric Cardiac Medicine Research Fellow at the hospital.
February is National Heart Month, and so we sat down to talk to him about about his project, how he got involved in this field, and his fundraising efforts for Borne.
1. Francois, February is National Heart Month. Some people might wonder what this has to do with preterm birth. What is the relationship between the two?
The relationship might not be obvious at first but there are very important links.
Firstly, mothers with congenital heart disease are more likely to have babies who are born premature. This is either because their heart condition worsens during pregnancy and therefore we end up delivering the baby preterm in order to keep the mother healthy (iatrogenic preterm birth), or because their condition is so severe that they go into preterm labour independently (spontaneous preterm labour).
On the other hand, mothers without heart disease who have premature babies are at a greater risk of developing arterial hypertension and cardiovascular disease later in life. Some believe that preterm birth should be a ‘new risk factor’ for cardiovascular disease.
2. Can you tell us about your research project?
Heart disease in pregnancy is the single largest cause of indirect maternal deaths in the UK. The high maternal mortality rate due to heart disease has remained unchanged over the last few years and addressing it remains a major challenge for the NHS.
There is limited data on the adaptation of the heart in women with congenital heart disease and little is known about the reversibility of these changes after pregnancy. Our aim is to study how the cardiovascular system adapts to pregnancy in woman with congenital heart disease. We are planning to see women at different stages of their pregnancy and see how their hearts are coping with the demands of pregnancy.
3. Why did you decide to work in obstetrics and in obstetric research?
My passion for obstetrics and gynaecology was sparked early on at medical school. I’ve always felt it’s an amazing specialty as we see women during some of the most challenging moments of their lives. It is also wonderful to be able to advocate for women and support them in their choices.
As Obs & Gynae is such a broad specialty, there are numerous opportunities for research in a huge variety of topics. Previously, I’ve been involved in medical research at The London, where I recruited patients for nationwide trials and helped with epidemiological research projects. It was then that I decided I wanted to pursue a project of my own.
4. What’s the ultimate goal in your work for you?
Ultimately, to gain a better understanding of how the heart adapts to pregnancy and to translate that into safer care for pregnant women with congenital heart disease.
5. You’re running a half marathon on 19th February 2017 in support of Borne. That’s quite a commitment! What made you want to do that?
I was never a runner and never imagined I would do something like this! The idea to run a half-marathon came from a few friends who brought up the challenge and I reluctantly agreed to join them. I have been training since last October and am slowly making progress during these tough winter months!
To keep me motivated, I felt like I needed a purpose so therefore decided to raise money for charity. Borne came as the obvious choice due to their generous support towards MD and PhD students and their fantastic and critical medical research into preterm birth.
If you wish to make a donation and support Francois and Borne please follow the link: https://www.justgiving.com/teams/francoissantos