Dr. Gunderson honored for lifetime of research that informs critical link between breastfeeding, gestational diabetes, and hypertension on future maternal cardiometabolic health and childhood obesity
Dr. Erica P. Gunderson, a prolific research scientist at Kaiser Permanente Northern California, has been named the recipient of the 2022-2023 March of Dimes Agnes Higgins Award in Maternal-Fetal Nutrition. Dr. Gunderson, a longtime senior research scientist in life-course cardiovascular and metabolic research at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research, and Professor in the department of Health Systems Science at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine, is the scientist behind decades-long studies that have produced some of the field’s most important and astounding findings on pregnancy and breastfeeding’s links to diabetes and cardiovascular disease in young women.
The award will be presented to Dr. Gunderson at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Society (PAS) in Washington, D.C. on April 30.
This recognition comes on the heels of Dr. Gunderson receiving, last year, the American Heart Association’s annual award for the best research article focused on cardiovascular disease and stroke in women. She was recognized for her study that showed that blood pressure patterns seen during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy may offer critical clues to identify the patients most likely to develop high blood pressure complications later in their pregnancies, such as preeclampsia, which claims the lives of more than 70,000 women annually worldwide.
“Dr. Gunderson’s pioneering, rigorous research on breastfeeding, diabetes and heart health is nothing short of extraordinary,” said March of Dimes Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Emre Seli. “Her work has added multiple indispensable scientific puzzle pieces to the voluminous pile of data on the benefits of maternal breastfeeding and presented mothers one of the most powerful, non-medical tools for the prevention of diabetes and heart disease.”
As a co-investigator on the groundbreaking, longitudinal Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, Dr. Gunderson’s research shined a light on pregnancy outcomes and the benefits of breastfeeding for heart health. One major finding from the CARDIA study showed that gestational diabetes increased the relative risk of heart attack later in life – even when blood sugar levels returned to normal during the years following pregnancy. This finding is foundational to developing effective interventions for women.
“As a young public health worker who was greatly inspired by Agnes Higgins, I‘m truly humbled to be receiving this award,” said Dr. Gunderson. “From the time I was an undergraduate standing outside the NICU looking at premature babies, I wanted to make a difference in this field. I’m incredibly proud to receive this award for my contributions to unraveling the science of lactation, gestational diabetes and heart disease so we can change outcomes for the most at-risk mothers and babies.”
Another pivotal piece of research Dr. Gunderson launched is the Study of Women, Infant Feeding and Type 2 Diabetes after Gestational Diabetes (SWIFT), one of the largest and most diverse prospective follow up studies of 1,033 women with gestational diabetes, to identify ways to improve the health of women and children. She found that longer breastfeeding was associated with a 50% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes in women with and without gestational diabetes. Dr. Gunderson’s findings effectively added diabetes to the list of diseases that breastfeeding may protect against – including the already well publicized protection against breast and ovarian cancers.
“Including her work on the predictive power of blood pressure patterns to identify preeclampsia risk, her years of grassroots public health efforts working with low-income mothers on gestational diabetes diet management and her mentorship of researchers in the space, Dr. Gunderson is the epitome what the Agnes Higgins award stands for, and the type of scientist March of Dimes is thrilled to celebrate,” said Dr. Seli.
Dr. Gunderson’s future research will focus on identifying the pathways responsible for lactation’s effect on blood sugar and triglycerides; prevention of pregnancy hypertension; the early life behaviors that may improve the metabolic profiles of children born to mothers with gestational diabetes; exactly how long breastfeeding protects mothers from cardiometabolic disease; and preconception strategies to prevent gestational diabetes.
About March of Dimes
March of Dimes leads the fight for the health of all moms and babies. We support research, lead programs and provide education and advocacy so that every family can have the best possible start. Building on a successful 85-year legacy, we support every pregnant person and every family. To learn more about March of Dimes, please visit marchofdimes.org.
About the Agnes Higgins Award
The Agnes Higgins Award offers one annual recipient a cash award not tied to any research aims. Established in 1980, the Agnes Higgins Award honors the late Agnes Higgins of the Montreal Diet Dispensary for her innovation and years of service to the cause of improved maternal nutrition. A pioneer in devising methods of nutritional assessment and counseling, Mrs. Higgins greatly advanced the understanding of healthy eating and nutrition as a crucial factor in healthy pregnancy and prevention of low birthweight. While science, technology and discovery in the maternal health field has progressed and researchers have begun asking ever more nuanced questions, nutrition remains at the forefront of a healthy pregnancy, with an increasing body of data pointing to its interconnectedness to maternal morbidity and mortality, as well as fetal and neonatal health.