Developmental programming

The nutritional environment before conception and during pregnancy and lactation is critical in determining the later health of a child. We investigate the mechanisms that underlie this programming to optimise the health of mothers and their children, and reduce their risk of obesity, diabetes and metabolic disease as adults.

Why is developmental programming important?

Obesity and related metabolic disorders (such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases) are increasing at an alarming rate and represent a major public health issue for the 21st century.Metabolic disease is caused by a complex interaction of genetic, physiological, behavioural and environmental factors. There are lots of theories to explain its dramatic increase, including increased food availability and more sedentary lifestyles. The rate of increase suggests that environmental and behavioural influences, rather than genetic causes, are driving the epidemic.

What are we investigating?

Epidemiological and experimental evidence suggests that alterations in early life nutrition have a major impact on the health and wellbeing of children. Our research focuses on undernutrition as well as high fat and high sugar diets on the growth and development of offspring.

We are particularly interested in how nutrition affects obesity, the regulation of the metabolic hormones insulin and leptin, and reproductive function. We are also investigating possible intervention strategies (including pharmacologic, nutritional and exercise-related) aimed at reversing this ‘programming’ of adult disease. Our work spans in vitro methodology, molecular biology, immunohistochemistry and epigenetics through to whole animal physiology and clinical trials.

Current research projects

  • The impact of altered maternal nutrition on health and wellbeing of offspring
  • The role of adipokines in reversing metabolic disorders induced by developmental programming
  • The role of altered maternal nutrition on fetal and placental metabolism
  • Maternal nutrition and reproductive fitness
  • Effect of exercise on body composition in offspring
  • Epigenetics: role of altered maternal nutrition on DNA methylation and miRNA profiles in offspring
  • Communication of DOHaD concepts and application of DOHaD in the Pacific Islands

Key concepts of developmental programming

Developmental Programming: environmental factors, particularly maternal undernutrition, act early in life to programme the risks for adverse health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity and the metabolic syndrome in children in adult life.

Metabolic Syndrome: the metabolic syndrome (also known as Syndrome X) is a cluster of abnormalities related to insulin resistance and associated with high risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes.

Epigenetics: refers to changes in phenotype (appearance) or gene expression through non-genetic factors which cause an organism's genes to behave (or ‘express themselves’) differently.

Reproductive Strategies: life history theory links earlier ages of reproductive maturity to ecological circumstances such as the availability of food and risk of predators. These concepts suggest that poor nutrition or a threatening environment in early life lead to accelerated maturation, through which the organism trades body size and longevity for earlier reproduction.

Approaches and methodologies of developmental programming

We use small animal studies to investigate the effects of altered maternal nutrition during critical windows of development such as pregnancy and lactation to examine disease risk in offspring. Our primary focus is on the links between diet and development of the metabolic syndrome and altered reproductive fitness.

We also use these models to examine the effect of therapeutic interventions (nutritional or pharmacologic) in reversing the effects of a poor maternal diet. Where possible we link our experimental outcomes to clinical data to ensure effective research translation.