In an effort to help reduce a nationwide maternal obesity epidemic, the National Institutes of Health has awarded a five-year, $1.5 million grant to researcher Stephen P. Ford, director of the University of Wyoming’s Center for the Study of Fetal Programming.
“The NIH is funding this research to find ways to stem the progressively increasing occurrence of obesity, now classified as a disease, in the U.S. and around the world,” says Ford, who holds the Rochelle Endowed Chair in the Department of Animal Science. “It is a lot less expensive to prevent this disease than to treat all of the obesity-associated metabolic diseases once an individual becomes obese.”
The NIH reports that 30 percent of women of child-bearing age are overweight or obese at conception and remain so throughout pregnancy. Maternal obesity not only predisposes mothers to serious health problems during pregnancy, but also increases the incidence of chronic metabolic diseases in their children and grandchildren. These include hyperphagia (overeating), insulin resistance, obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
The NIH grant augments Ford’s ongoing research that previously demonstrated that pregnant sheep are a good model for the study of human obesity. Lambs born to obese ewes develop the same metabolic diseases exhibited by human babies, Ford says.
“The data we are getting in sheep are very similar to what happens to human offspring born to obese or overweight women,” Ford says. “Lambs are born with an increased percentage of body fat; they exhibit increased appetites, develop insulin resistance and obesity, and have an increased incidence of hypertension as adults.”
As previously mentioned, maternal obesity before and during pregnancy results in the lack of an early postnatal leptin surge in daughters and, Ford says, “unfortunately, we recently demonstrated that there is also an absence of the leptin surge in their granddaughters, even if the daughters are not obese and fed only to requirements throughout pregnancy.” Thus, the predisposition to obesity and the metabolic syndrome can cross generations, and may help explain their marked increase over time, Ford adds.
”From ongoing research, we have an idea of what hormones and developmental changes in the fetus might be involved in preventing the surge of leptin from occurring,” Ford says. “It is hoped that these studies will have direct implications for reversing the obesity epidemic that has resulted in marked and escalating health care costs worldwide.”