Looking at blood in the umbilical cord to find the missing link between obesity in mother and child

Professor Lucilla Poston, Dr Annette Briley, Dr Dharmintra Pasupathy, Dr Nashita Patel, Mr Paul Seed, Claire Singh MSc, the UPBEAT consortium

Researchers have been looking at the ways that a mother’s weight can impact on the health of her baby, by looking at samples of blood from the umbilical cord.

In the UPBEAT trial, we looked at obese women to find out about the effects of changing to a healthier diet and more active lifestyle during pregnancy. Researchers supported by Tommy’s have already found that babies of women who changed their lifestyles had less fat in their body at 6 months old than babies of women who didn’t.  

Now we know this, we want to understand more about why. This is of vital importance: around 23% of all children under 18 are overweight or obese. 15 studies have suggested that body mass index before pregnancy, weight put on during pregnancy, and diabetes are all linked to more fat and unhealthier hearts in children. This could show that obesity is “programmed” while still in the womb.

This year, we aimed to find the next piece of the puzzle about how a mother’s lifestyle and diet are related to obesity in her children. To do this, we looked at blood from the umbilical cords of 608 mothers who took part in the UPBEAT trial to see if there were differences between mothers who changed their diet and lifestyle, and those who didn’t. 

We found that changing to a healthier diet and lifestyle was not linked with changes to cord blood or infant weight. However, we did find that women with a higher level of glucose in their blood at 28 weeks’ gestation had higher concentrations of certain cord blood components. These components – called lysophosphatidylcholines and phosphatidylcholines – were found to be linked to a lower than average infant weight at birth and at age 6 months. 

These findings support our theory that susceptibility to childhood obesity may start in the womb. 

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This study takes place in a Tommy's centre and is funded by Tommy's, the National Institute for Health Research, Chief Scientist Office Scotland, the Medical Research Council, Guys and St Thomas' Charity, Guys and St Thomas' Biomedical Research Centre, EU EarlyNutrition, and Action Medical Research

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