High-risk pregnancy expert joins Medical Center staff

November 27, 2007

Helen Kay, MD, an expert in the care of high-risk pregnancy patients, has been appointed professor of obstetrics, section chief of maternal-fetal medicine, and chief of obstetrics at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Kay studies preeclampsia, a disease that affects five to eight percent of pregnant women and can result in high blood pressure, seizures, strokes and even death.

"She is well-respected by her peers in the field of maternal-fetal medicine and is known for her clinical care, research, administrative abilities and devotion to teaching," said Arthur Haney, MD, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

As chief of obstetrics, Kay will foster collaborative medical care from physicians who treat both mothers and babies. "We are especially equipped to care for women with complicated pregnancies, those who need a multi-specialty approach," Kay said.

In her new role, Kay will enhance care for mothers and babies with special needs. "We're developing a fetal center," she said, "a center that can draw upon the expertise of pediatric sub-specialists, neonatologists, and maternal-fetal specialists to care for mothers with pregnancy complications and babies with anomalies."

Those who will benefit most from this approach include older women and those with triplets or other multiple gestations; a child with fetal anomalies; a history of bad pregnancy outcomes, such as multiple pregnancy losses; high blood pressure; or diseases that complicate pregnancy, such as congenital heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, or thyroid disease.

"People need to know how important it is to have a healthy pregnancy and to optimize that," Kay said. For instance, research shows that children of diabetic mothers have a higher incidence of hypertension, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

"It goes back to what happens in the womb," she said. "We take care of two patients simultaneously. If we optimize the antenatal environment, babies will be healthier and they will live healthier lives as children and as adults."

In her research, Kay applies molecular techniques to the study of hypoxia in the placenta and how it might bring about preeclampsia. Typically, doctors do not diagnose preeclampsia until the third trimester, but Kay believes conditions are present from the outset of the pregnancy.

"We don't know the cause of the disease," Kay said. "But we believe preeclampsia begins in the placenta in the early part of pregnancy, carries through the second trimester, and culminates in the third trimester when the baby outgrows the support that can be provided by the sick placenta."

Kay and her research team look for changes in the placenta, markers of placental disease, and whether there's anything that can be done. If they can find what's happening in the placenta, then they might be able to determine which mothers are predisposed to preeclampsia and intervene early.

Kay's work has extended beyond national borders and includes collaboration with officials from South Africa to study Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Cape Town. From 1997 to 2002, Kay worked with GE Medical Systems to design and test an early version of the portable, hand-held ultrasound.

Kay earned a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Chicago in 1975 and a medical degree from Yale University in 1979. She completed her residency at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and held fellowships at the Pregnancy Research Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Bethesda, Md., and at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.

Kay served on the Duke faculty for 13 years, the University of Wisconsin-Madison for five years as maternal-fetal medicine section chief, and most recently as professor and chair at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, Ark.

She is a member of the Society of Maternal-Fetal Medicine, the Society of Gynecologic Investigation and the Preeclampsia Foundation among others. She is a board examiner in Obstetrics and Gynecology and also serves on the editorial board of the journal Placenta.

Kay's husband Brian is department head of Biological Sciences at the University of Illinois-Chicago. The couple have two daughters: Emily, a PhD candidate at Harvard University, and Allison, a junior at Dartmouth.

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