UI connecting prenatal events with later disease


A low birth-weight baby and a 60-year-old’s heart attack — UI researchers believe these could be related, and diet and stress could be the links.

On campus, researchers are working to find out how.

The Program in Developmental Origins — developed four years ago by several scientists in the pediatrics department in the UI Children’s Hospital — focuses on the connection between early events in life and development of diseases later on.

Numerous clinical studies conducted globally have found newborns who have low birth weights tend to suffer an earlier onset of cardiovascular disease as adults.

Professor Jeffrey Segar, one of the primary investigators involved in the UI program, said low birth weight may not be the only culprit — it’s what’s going on in the womb during development.

“It’s the first intrauterine environment that results in low birth weight, somehow affecting the health of the offspring later in life,” he said.

Scientists found dietary patterns and stress in pregnant mothers are two elements that result in low birth weight, along with health complications as the individual ages.

“You can actually change the diet in pregnant mothers and thus change the way the children were affected by the environment,” said Kenneth Volk, the lab director of the program.

For example, providing a diet high in fat and carbohydrates but low in protein results in offspring with an increased risk of developing diseases such as hypertension, atherosclerosis, and diabetes, Volk said.

This is also known as fetal programming. The detrimental diet in the womb causes the offspring to expect that sort of diet into adulthood, which will cause problems down the road.

Segar said low birth weight should not be confused with premature birth.

According to the March of Dimes, about one in 12 babies are low birth weight, and approximately 67 percent of those are premature.

Women with underlying health conditions during pregnancy, such as diabetes, hypertension — which can result from stress — and other conditions that prevent blood flow to the uterus, put the offspring at risk for developing complications, Segar said.

The Program in Developmental Origins has received funding from the pediatrics department and the Carver College of Medicine, as well as National Institutes of Health.

The research could help scientists develop therapies for women during their pregnancies and the interventions could help those who are likely to deliver infants with an increased risk for developing diseases.

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