Developmental programming in the treatment of chronic disease

Blog Post by Professor Graham Burton, Director of the Centre for Trophoblast Research, Dept of Physiology, Development & Neuroscience  

Developmental programming is a relatively new area of medicine but one that has a potentially profound impact on the way we approach and treat chronic diseases. Programming describes the process by which our risk of suffering from chronic disease in adult life is determined to a large extent by the environment we experience while within our mother’s womb. Adverse conditions lead to impoverished development of the major organ systems of the body, such as the kidney and heart, and so to permanent changes in their structure and future functional capacity. Consequently, low birthweight is linked to an increased risk of developing a wide variety of diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, neurological disorders and certain cancers. The adverse intrauterine environment may be the result of environmental factors, such as famine, maternal stress or disorders of the placenta. The placenta forms the interface between the mother and her fetus, and so plays a key role in providing nutrients, and protecting the fetus from the potentially harmful effects of the maternal immune system and stress hormones. Epidemiologists, geneticists, physiologists and placental biologists all play a vital role in exploring the molecular mechanisms underlying developmental programming, and hence the risk of adult disease. The potential impact for public health medicine is enormous, and so this should be a research priority. At the very least, programming emphasises the importance of proper pre- and peri-conceptional care in order to ensure the healthiest possible pregnancies.

For further information, see The Placenta and Human Developmental Programming, edited by Graham Burton, Ashley Moffett, David Barker,Elizabeth Harrington and Kent Thornburg, and published by Cambridge University Press

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