Alcohol, caffeine, soft boiled eggs, liver, raw meats and blue cheese: all foods pregnant women are advised to avoid because of potential risks to their unborn children. But what of foods women consume, or chemicals they come into contact with, that have a less immediate impact, where the damage might not become obvious until many years down the line? 300,000 women from across Europe are to take part in a project involving the Leeds Institute of Genetics, Health and Therapeutics (LIGHT), to look at the 'unseen' effects of food and chemicals on the unborn child.
The €15m NewGeneris study will look for changes to DNA and proteins, which are signs of an increased risk of cancer or immune disorders such as eczema or asthma in later life. Women and their newborn children from Denmark, Norway, Greece and Spain as well as 10,000 women from Bradford will be taking part. The aim of the five-year project is to come up with more effective food regulations and clear public health messages about what constitutes safe levels of chemical exposure for women during pregnancy.
Heading the research at Leeds is LIGHT acting director, Professor Chris Wild: "We know very little about how sensitive the child is to the environment when it's in the womb and shortly after birth. A review of existing research, recently highlighted in the Guardian, confirmed that there is some evidence that the young are more sensitive than adults, so what might be a safe level of exposure for an adult might not be for a child. However, no conclusive link has yet been made and we hope that this study will finally do that."
The women will have blood and urine samples taken and fill in questionnaires on their diet, lifestyle and habits and the environment in which they live. Following the birth, a blood sample will also be taken from the placenta to determine which chemicals have crossed from the mother to the child.
The target toxic chemicals include those found in processed or contaminated food, air pollution, tobacco smoke and alcohol: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heterocyclic amines, nitrosamines, acrylamide, mycotoxins, dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and ethanol.
Professor of Biochemistry, John Findlay said: "What we're looking for are things called 'biomarkers' to show where chemical exposure has occurred: changes to DNA and proteins that are indications of damage, and damage can mean an increased risk of disease."
An expert in proteomics - the analysis of how proteins function in our bodies - Professor Findlay will be working with blood samples from across Europe. From each sample, the proteins will be isolated and analysed using new software originally developed by astrophysicists to look at the patterns of stars. This software highlights changes in the distribution and density of the proteins and then the individual 'damaged' protein can be identified. "It's a long process which will need to be carried out with a huge number of samples," said Professor Findlay.
There's a lot of variance across different individuals but we've got to look beyond this to identify minute changes that are outside what's 'normal'. The sheer numbers involved in this study and the fact that the samples come from many different countries will increase this variability and make it bigger than anything we've tackled before."
But this complex molecular analysis is only one part of the project. The results from the samples from both mother and child will be linked by epidemiologists, including Professors Patricia McKinney and Janet Cade, to the information gathered from the volunteers about their environment and lifestyles, to see where exposure is translated into biological changes which predict disease.
Professor Wild and his team will be looking particularly for which environmental chemicals in the mother are able to cross the placenta, and whether or not the foetus transforms these chemicals into a more toxic form that results in damage to DNA.
With 10,000 volunteers to be recruited in the Born in Bradford part of the project over the next few years, the researchers also hope to follow those children through, to see how their growth and development can be linked back to the early stage 'biomarkers' found in the lab. The Leeds end of the project is worth £1.6m.
"It's rare to see one research project go from molecular analysis through to a practical clinical or public health application in this way, but this is exactly the kind of thing LIGHT was set up to achieve", says Professor Wild.
"The institute brings together researchers from medicine, biological sciences, epidemiology and biostatistics. Our work combines basic science with population-based and clinical research to enable a fast transfer of knowledge from the laboratory both to intervention strategies in populations and improved treatment in the clinic. It's this multidisciplinary approach as well as the state-of-the-art facilities in the LIGHT laboratories that enable us to take a leading role in this important European project."
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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