Using foreskin tissue from newborn circumcisions, researchers from the University of Kentucky (UK) have identified a potential cellular mechanism that may help explain the link between maternal smoking during pregnancy and a greater risk for obesity in the child.
The findings suggest that maternal smoking could lead to changes in the child’s genes that play an important role in fat cell development and obesity.
“It has been consistently shown that mothers who smoke during pregnancy confer increased risk of obesity to their baby, but the mechanisms responsible for this increased risk are not well understood,” said the study’s principal investigator Dr. Kevin Pearson from UK.
“These data mark a first step towards defining those mechanisms with an eye toward potential interventions in the longer term.”
In collaboration with UK’s department of obstetrics and gynecology, a total of 65 new mothers were recruited for the study in two different cohorts: 46 in Cohort 1 (2012-2013) and 19 in Cohort 2 (2015-2016).
All of the infants were full-term; around half of all new mothers reported smoking during their pregnancies. DNA and RNA were isolated from foreskin tissue which would otherwise be discarded after routine circumcisions and analyzed with a focus on chemerin gene expression.
Chemerin is a protein that is produced by fat cells and appears to play a role in energy storage. Previous research has shown that chemerin is present in higher levels in the blood of obese people. However, Pearson said, it has not been measured in neonates exposed to cigarette smoke.
The findings show that chemerin was more prevalent in the skin and isolated cells of infants whose mothers smoked during pregnancy, suggesting that smoking in pregnancy could be leading to changes in the regulation of the genes that play an important role in fat cell development and, therefore, obesity.
“Our work demonstrated that expectant mothers who smoke cigarettes during pregnancy induce distinct changes in chemerin gene expression in their offspring,” Pearson said.
The findings could pave the way for the development of effective treatments against pediatric and adult obesity in babies born to smokers as well as those exposed to other environmental pollutants in the womb.
Obesity is considered an epidemic in the United States, with nearly 35 percent of adults and 20 percent of children six to 19 years old deemed obese. Obesity is also a serious economic burden with more than $150 billion spent annually on obesity-related health care costs in the U.S. alone.
Source: University of Kentucky