The environment we experience before we are born can have a profound impact on us throughout our lives. Being born early or late, or under- or over-weight, increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in adulthood. Having a mother with a poor diet, or actively dieting at the time she conceives, doubles the risk of an early birth. And being born just one kilogram lighter than normal doubles the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by the age of 45. Yet around the world, fewer than 5 percent of women of child-bearing age, who become pregnant, have a diet that meets international recommendations.
These consequences of prematurity and other pregnancy disorders are major problems for our society with significant costs to the health sector and a negative impact on the productive economy. Pioneering work at the Liggins Institute is beginning to identify a number of ways in which it may be possible to reverse these challenging conditions – at source. Clinical trials by Professor Jane Harding and her team on the use of a dextrose gel placed in the cheek of susceptible babies have shown it can prevent the detrimental effects of low blood glucose on brain development in premature babies.
Similarly, a study in neonatal intensive care units around New Zealand is testing the idea that a small change in the way that premature infants are fed could change the course of their lives.
Researchers believe that feeding the tiniest of newborns – those weighing less than a kilogram and born at less than 28 weeks – just an extra one gram of protein a day for the first five days after birth could help establish a normal growth trajectory, with the potential to prevent the later development of obesity and high blood pressure.
An international collaboration with scientists in the UK, Singapore and industry is exploring whether use of a combination of nutrients and probiotics before and during pregnancy can improve the health of both mothers and babies. The aim of this study is to help women optimise their nutrition so that their children will have the best possible start to life – and the best possible long-term health.
Through work such as this, we have before us the opportunity not only to create the optimal environment for our babies, but also to ensure that they will have improved health as adults.
“Theoretical modelling indicates that an intervention in early life is likely to have a much greater effect on life-long health than an intervention that occurs later...” Professor Frank Bloomfield,Director, Liggins Institute