NoE 'spin-off' PIONEER to investigate causes of early puberty

March 23, 2005

Brussels, 22 Mar 2005

While research into the latter stages of the ageing process has received increased attention in recent years due to changing population structures, there is still one stage of life about which very little is known: puberty. As the basic underlying mechanisms of puberty are not well understood, scientists have even greater difficulty in explaining the early onset of puberty, known as 'precocious puberty'.

The PIONEER project is intended to fill this knowledge gap. While precocious puberty will be the focus of the project, the partners will also look at the endogenous factors that ordinarily regulate the onset of puberty. A particular focus of the project will be the influence of nutritional, environmental and endogenous regulators on puberty onset.

The project partners held their kick-off meeting on 21 March, and CORDIS News was present to speak to some of the researchers involved. The project is being coordinated by Sari Mäkelä from the University of Turku in Finland, and involves 11 other research groups.

'We need to clarify what this phenomenon is,' Dr Mäkelä told CORDIS News. After three years of research she hopes to have a fuller understanding of the phenomenon of precocious puberty, and to know whether it is a problem, and who might be at risk. 'Three years is far too short to get the whole thing clear though,' she added. 'It is still a huge mystery.'

The partners in the project range from researchers used to working with cultured cells to those who work with patients, 'and everything in between', said Dr Mäkelä. One of the clinicians involved, Leo Dunkel from Finland's Kuopio University Hospital, gave a summary of what is currently known and what needs to be further investigated. At the core of the onset of puberty is genetic pre-disposition. This is known from familial studies. Second to genetics come fat mass and sensitivity to insulin, which are thought by some to be responsible for precocious puberty. The third layer of stimuli for the onset of puberty may include stress, adoption, migration, nutrition and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. There is evidence to suggest that each of these factors play a role, and the PIONEER consortium is hoping to discover whether it is a certain combination of these factors that triggers the early arrival of puberty.

The migration and adoption theories are given credence by the fact that precocious puberty in industrialised countries appears to be most prevalent among children born in developing countries and then adopted by a Western family. It is hoped that the inclusion of the one non-European partner in the project, Zulfiqar Bhutta from the Aga Khan University in Pakistan, will help the PIONEER team to find an explanation for this.

Contact with contaminants was thought by many to be responsible for a huge upsurge in the number of cases detected in Puerto Rico in the 1980s. Some suspected that growth promoters had somehow entered the food chain, but as such substances are illegal in Europe, this would not explain all incidents.

Similarly, a high percentage of those experiencing puberty prematurely in the US are overweight. But this is by no means the case for all sufferers.

The PIONEER project was first conceived within the CASCADE Network of Excellence (NoE) on chemicals as contaminants in the food chain. This can be regarded as a huge success for CASCADE, as it illustrates the effective exchange of ideas between the network's partners. Indeed, CASCADE is encouraging its participants to take a 'new and fresh look at various issues,' the network's coordinator, Jan-Åke Gustafsson, told CORDIS News.

In addition to PIONEER, CASCADE has led to another project proposal being submitted under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) and the application for some 19 Marie Curie fellowships. The network also has ambitions to involve China in its work, and Professor Gustafsson has already discussed the issue with the Chinese Minister for Research, who was very positive towards the proposal.

CASCADE is only one year into its three-year duration, however, and Professor Gustafsson is certain that yet more 'spin-offs' will follow. This is in addition to new results on the effects of food contaminants on human health, which Professor Gustafsson predicts will be both 'exciting' and 'disturbing', and recommendations on the threshold levels for such substances in food.
For further information on PIONEER, please contact:
Dr Sari Mäkelä

For further information on CASCADE, please visit:

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities
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