A new study found evidence suggesting that the in utero environment of obese mothers may program a child’s cells to accumulate extra fat or develop differences in metabolism that could lead to type 2 diabetes. The research, presented June 9 at the American Diabetes Association’s 75th Scientific Sessions, may offer important clues to why the children of obese mothers are at an increased risk for obesity.
“One of the questions that needs to be explored is how children of obese mothers may be at risk for becoming obese as a result of factors that occur even before they are born,” study author Kristen E. Boyle, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said in a news release. “Our study looked at the mechanism by which children may be preprogrammed for increased obesity risk because of changes occurring in utero.”
For the study, Boyle and her colleagues took stem cells from the donated umbilical cords of babies of born to normal-weight mothers and mothers who were diagnosed as obese on their first prenatal visit. The research team grew the extracted stem cells into fat and muscle cells in a lab.
The team found a 30 percent higher fat content in both kinds of the cultivated cells taken from babies whose mothers were obese. They also noted that when the stem cells were first harvested, they all had similar amounts of fat.
“But as we grow them into fat cells in the lab, the cells from babies of obese mothers accumulate more fat than those from babies of normal-weight mothers, which means that there is either a difference in how these cells take fat into the cell, or in how the cells use and store fat inside the cell,” Boyle told Healthline.
Boyle acknowledged that the study findings are preliminary and that it is not yet known if the differences in the cells grown in the lab will mean that the infants of obese moms are more likely to become obese or develop conditions associated with being overweight, including heart disease and diabetes. The next step, she said, is to follow these offspring to see if there is a lasting change into adulthood.
“But,” she added, “it’s clear that there is an inherent propensity toward more fat content in the cells from of offspring of the obese moms [grown in the] culture.”
Jerome Tolbert, MD, medical director of outreach at the Gerald J. Friedman Diabetes Institute at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York City, sees the study as a wake-up call for overweight women planning a pregnancy.
“This type of information hopefully would promote overweight women to strive for ideal body weight or to lose as much weight as possible prior to becoming pregnant,” Tolbert told Healthline.
He underscored the study’s findings, saying that it is likely a genetic predisposition would cause the higher fat content to contribute to the risk of obesity in the developing baby. “The vast majority of women have no idea that they can pass obesity and the risk of other chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease to their developing fetus,” added Tolbert.