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Stem cells could reveal secrets of illness in later life

6 January 2005

Mums to be have known for some time that what they eat when pregnant affects their unborn child but now scientists believe that the diet of our mothers during pregnancy may even affect our predisposition to illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure in late life.

Studies with animals have shown a link between diet and the life long health of offspring but experiments with pregnant women or unborn children is clearly not possible. Researchers funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) have turned to embryonic human stem cells to provide the answers.

The scientists, led by Dr Lorraine Young at the University of Nottingham Division of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, are looking at the fundamental process of methylation. This is one of the ways that our bodies control which genes are working in which tissues and at what time by tagging some of our DNA with small chemical groups called methyl groups. The process is essential for controlling gene activity as an organism grows and develops into adulthood. Faults in this process are known to cause some rare developmental diseases but Dr Young’s group now believes that a foetus’ response to its mother’s diet could affect this process as well, leading to changes in gene activity and therefore susceptibility to illness in later life.

Dr Young said, “We are trying to identify the primary factors that influence the methylation process and which therefore might affect an unborn child’s long-term susceptibility to certain diseases in later life. We can use unspecialised stem cells to study the effect of diet on the tagging of the DNA and then induce them to develop into a cell type such a heart cell to see whether the effect is still there.”

The researchers are looking at nutrients such as vitamin B12, amino acids and the popular pregnancy supplement, folic acid.

Professor Julia Goodfellow, Chief Executive of BBSRC, said, “This work is clearly important as it may show how diet in the first stages of pregnancy could affect an individual’s health for the rest of their life. It could also help to inform the best conditions for children conceived using in vitro fertilization technology. We may be able to optimise the nutrient mix and levels in the culture media to give early embryonic cells the best conditions for the lifelong functioning of their DNA.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

This research features in the January 2005 issue of Business, the quarterly magazine of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

The research is regulated by the Steering Committee for the UK Stem Cell Bank and is funded by BBSRC.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

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