By David Robinson
Scientists today know that the key to a major reduction in obesity rates lies beyond prescriptions for diet and exercise.
Between 20 and 30 percent of babies may be fated to a lifetime of weight battles by their exposure to obesity while in the womb, known as maternal programming of fetal metabolism, said UAMS’ Thomas Badger, Ph.D.
Badger is director of the Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center, one of six Human Nutrition Research Centers in the nation funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“We clearly demonstrated in animal models that the exposure to obesity before birth can permanently change the offspring metabolism to utilize energy from food much more efficiently and store the remaining energy as fat” said Badger, a professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Physiology/Biophysics in the UAMS College of Medicine.
“If you take two sets of children, one programmed and one not, the programmed children may become obese despite consuming similar amounts of food and having the same level of physical activity as the other children,” Badger said.
Significant weight loss prior to a pregnancy has been shown to moderate such programming, but it may not be a realistic solution for all situations.
Badger is on a team of seven UAMS scientists who are researching ways to prevent the life-altering side-effects of maternal obesity. Their $3.2 million study is funded by the USDA and is led by Aline Andres, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and an investigator at the Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center, which is based at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.
Together, they designed the study to investigate how children’s ability to use and store energy may get programmed from their mothers.
The five-year study will involve 320 lean, overweight and obese pregnant women. It will follow participants during pregnancy and study the growth and body composition of their children until age 2. The research will focus on the link between maternal metabolism and their child’s growth, development and metabolism.
The exact mechanisms by which maternal programming occurs are still unknown. But the researchers are focusing on the placenta, the key organ linking the maternal and fetal circulation, to understand the potential signals that may be transmitted from the mother to the fetus.
The study represents translational science at its best, with collaboration across a large group of scientists to expedite the application of knowledge gained from animal models to humans. With help from Kartik Shankar, Ph.D., Andres and Badger are already testing potential interventions to prevent obesity as early in life as possible.
“We hope that in a few years we can develop an effective prevention strategy for the general population,” Andres said. As part of this translational enterprise, the UAMS Translational Research Institute is providing nursing support.
In a separate study also led by Andres, researchers are trying to determine if programming may occur prior to conception.
The study of fetal metabolism is one of the center’s most significant projects because the knowledge gained is expected to advance prevention and treatments of other diseases, such as diabetes and cancer.
“This has much wider implications, but we’re focusing on obesity because it is the major problem of our time in medicine,” Badger said.