Genetic link discovered between intrauterine growth and diseases in adulthood

Scientists have identified four new genetic regions that influence birth weight. Growth-regulating genes begin to take effect at a very early stage. The results of a major international research project shed important light on the mechanisms that affect intrauterine growth. Eventually these results may lead to a better understanding of how to manage growth problems during pregnancy. The Academy of Finland has contributed to financing the Finnish component of the study, which has now been published in Nature Genetics online.

One of the new genetic regions is associated with blood pressure in adulthood, and three of them are also linked to adult metabolism. This is the first time that evidence has been presented of a genetic link between birth weight and blood pressure measured in adulthood. Two of the gene regions are known to be associated with adult height. The genetic link to metabolism goes some way towards explaining why lower-weight babies have higher rates of chronic disease later in life.

The project analysed almost 70,000 individuals of European descent in 43 different studies of pregnancy and birth. As well as identifying the four new genetic regions, the project team also confirmed three regions previously identified as influencing birth weight.

It has been known for some time that lower-weight babies are at higher risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, but the reasons remain poorly understood. To date scientists have identified three genetic regions that affect birth weight, and two of these regions have also been linked with an elevated risk of type 2 diabetes.

Birth weight is also heavily influenced by many environmental factors. That is why the research teams were surprised to see that the discovered genes, taken together, have a similar impact on birth weight as regular maternal smoking in pregnancy, which is known to lead to lower birth weight babies.

The Finnish contributions to the international project include the Cardiovascular Risk in Young Finns Study; two Northern Finland Birth Cohort studies NFBC (1966 and 1985–1986); the Helsinki Birth Cohort Study HBCS; the Turku Coronary Risk Factor Intervention Project STRIP; and the Physical Activity and Nutrition in Children project PANIC.

The PANIC study is an exercise and diet intervention study that started in 2007 and is still ongoing. Led by professor Timo Lakka at the University of Eastern Finland, the PANIC study provides new information about physical activity, nutrition, physical fitness, overweight, body fat mass and fat-free mass, bone mineral density, metabolism, circulation, foetal and early childhood development, cognition, oral health, sleep, pain, quality of life and health care costs as well as the effects of exercise and diet intervention on health and wellbeing in a population sample of 512 children living in the city of Kuopio.

Funding for the research in Finland has also been provided by Biocentrum Helsinki, the Emil Aaltonen Foundation, the European Union, the Juho Vainio Foundation, the Social Insurance Institution of Finland, the Finnish Cultural Foundation, the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Medical Research Council (UK), the University of Oulu and Biocenter Oulu, the Paavo Nurmi Foundation, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, the Sigrid Juselius Foundation, the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, the Finnish Foundation for Cardiovascular Research, the Turku University Foundation, the Wellcome Trust (UK), the Yrjö Jahnsson Foundation, and the University Hospitals of Kuopio, Oulu, Tampere and Turku.

The article was published in Nature Genetics 2 Dec 2012. DOI 10.1038/ng.2477

For further information, please contact:

The PANIC study website

Publishing year: 2012

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