Stem cells could tell us the secrets of ill-health in later life

January 18, 2005

Brussels, 17 Jan 2005

European life scientists are drawing closer to understanding the link between foetal development and nutrition and illnesses which occur later in life. Animal tests have shown the importance of this relationship but, with human trials out of the question, the researchers are turning to stem cells to provide the answers.

Expecting mothers know almost instinctively that what they eat while pregnant could affect their unborn child. But now scientists in the United Kingdom believe our mothers' diets during pregnancy may even affect our predisposition to illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, in later life.

Studies using animals have shown a link between diet and the lifelong health of offspring but proving this with human trials is ethically tricky, as experiments with pregnant women or unborn children are not possible. Researchers, funded by the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), have turned to embryonic human stem cells – undifferentiated master cells from which specialised cells develop – to provide the answers.

The scientists, led by Dr Lorraine Young at the University of Nottingham's Division of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (UK), are looking at the fundamental process of methylation. This is one of the ways that our body controls which genes are working in which tissues and at what time by tagging some of our DNA with small chemical markers called methyl groups.

"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," explains Dr Young about her work. "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 as a heart cell, to see whether the effect is still there."

You are what mother ate

The methylation 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 greater susceptibility to disease in later life.

The researchers are looking at nutrients such as vitamin B12, amino acids and the popular pregnancy supplement, folic acid. Their findings will feature in the January 2005 issue of Business , the quarterly magazine of the BBSRC, the British funding agency for research in the life sciences.

Chief Executive of BBSRC, Professor Julia Goodfellow, says the work could also provide insight into the best conditions for children conceived using in vitro fertilisation 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," she notes.

The EU has also dedicated research funding – under its Sixth Research Framework Programme – for the 'Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health' thematic priority, which has a budget of over €2.25 billion. A number of cutting-edge European projects have already been approved and launched. The Commission also recently set up a European Platform on Innovative Medicines to "remove bottlenecks hampering… development of new medicines, and where research is the key to resolve current obstacles for the European pharma/biotechnology industry".

DG Research
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