New research demonstrates how maternal fat metabolism very early in pregnancy and fetal abdominal growth influence child weight and adiposity by 2 years of age.
- The study, in six countries, followed 3,500 babies and their mothers from early pregnancy to childhood
- The growth of the fetal abdomen is influenced by the mother’s blood lipid metabolites very early in pregnancy
- Both the growth of the fetal abdomen and the mother’s blood lipid metabolites very early in pregnancy influence the child’s weight and body fat at 2 years of age
- The findings could lead to earlier identification of infants at risk of overweight and obesity – one of the most pressing global public health issues
A new study, led by researchers at the University of Oxford, UK, in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley, USA, published today in Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology identifies, as early as the 5th month of pregnancy, patterns of fetal abdominal growth associated with maternal lipid metabolites that track newborn growth, adiposity and development into childhood. These fetal growth patterns are also associated with blood flow and nutrient transfer by the placenta, demonstrating a complex interaction between maternal and fetal nutrition early in pregnancy that influences postnatal weight and eventually adult health.
The researchers monitored the growth inside the womb of over 3,500 babies in six countries (Brazil, Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa, Thailand, and the United Kingdom) using serial fetal ultrasound scans throughout pregnancy, and analysed blood samples taken from the women early in pregnancy and from the umbilical cord at birth. They then monitored the growth and development of the infants until 2 years of age.
José Villar, Professor of Perinatal Medicine at the University of Oxford, who co-led the study said: ‘This is the first comprehensive evidence, across geographic populations, of the complex interaction between maternal and fetal metabolism that regulates, early in pregnancy, unique fetal trajectories linked specifically to weight, adiposity and development during childhood. The study complements our previous work that identified fetal head growth trajectories associated with different developmental, behavioural, visual and growth outcomes at 2 years of age. In simple terms: the growth of babies’ bodies and brain track separately and early – while still within the womb’.
Aris Papageorghiou, Professor of Fetal Medicine at the University of Oxford, who co-led the study, said: ‘The study is unique for many reasons. Each pregnancy was accurately dated by ultrasound at less than 14 weeks’ gestation; all fetuses were scanned with the same type of ultrasound machine every 5 weeks; and ultrasound and paediatric specialists around the world were trained to measure fetal and child growth in a standardised manner using identical equipment’.
‘Much has been said about the importance of the first 1000 days of life in determining future health outcomes. This study provides evidence of distinct patterns of fetal abdominal growth and placental transfer and how they relate to longer term health. The finding of an association with maternal lipid metabolism early in pregnancy also provides unique insights into how the mother’s health and diet influence her child’s adiposity’.
Stephen Kennedy, Professor of Reproductive Medicine at the University of Oxford, who co-led the study, said: ‘This landmark study has provided valuable new insights into the biological origins of childhood obesity, which is one of the most pressing public health issues facing governments around the world. The findings could contribute to earlier identification of infants at risk of obesity. Policymakers must take notice of these findings in their efforts to prevent the oncoming epidemic of obesity with all its likely adverse social and economic consequences’.
The paper complements work published by the same groups in 2021 that identified fetal head growth trajectories that are associated with different developmental, behavioural, visual and growth outcomes at 2 years of age. Very importantly, in both studies, the same critical time period close to the 5th month of pregnancy is the starting point for accelerated or decelerated fetal growth that is sustained into early childhood.
For further information and interview requests please contact: University of Oxford press office, [email protected]
Notes to Editors
The full paper, ‘‘Fetal abdominal growth trajectories, associated with maternal metabolite signatures early in pregnancy, are footprints for childhood growth and adiposity’ will be published in Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology after the embargo lifts.
The INTERBIO-21st Study was supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Nuffield Department of Women’s & Reproductive Health
The Nuffield Department of Women’s & Reproductive Health at the University of Oxford encompasses multidisciplinary research across four overarching themes; Cancer, Global Health, Maternal & Fetal Health and Reproductive Medicine & Genetics. It focuses on genetic studies, the dissection of molecular, biochemical and cellular mechanisms underlying normal and aberrant reproductive tissue function, clinical studies in women’s health and pregnancy, and growth and development across the first 1000 days of life.
Oxford Maternal & Perinatal Health Institute (OMPHI)
The Oxford Maternal & Perinatal Health Institute, based at Green Templeton College, Oxford, works alongside the Nuffield Department of Women’s & Reproductive Health, bringing together world experts to resolve priority maternal and perinatal health problems on a global scale.
Oxford University’s Medical Sciences Division is one of the largest biomedical research centres in Europe, with over 2,500 people involved in research and more than 2,800 students. The University is rated the best in the world for medicine and life sciences, and it is home to the UK’s top-ranked medical school. It has one of the largest clinical trial portfolios in the UK and great expertise in taking discoveries from the lab into the clinic. Partnerships with the local NHS Trusts enable patients to benefit from close links between medical research and health care delivery.
Method of Research
Subject of Research
Association between fetal abdominal growth trajectories, maternal metabolite signatures early in pregnancy, and childhood growth and adiposity: prospective observational multinational INTERBIO-21st fetal study
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