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Professor Tom Fleming
"Research was on animals, not humans"
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Thursday, 21 September, 2000, 00:42 GMT 01:42 UK
Early pregnancy diet 'crucial'
Future health may be set before a child becomes a foetus
Experiments in animals suggest that what a mother eats in the few days after conception could influence the child's long-term health.

Female rats starved of protein for just a few days just after mating had offspring with a higher rate of defects.

Female offspring were underweight at birth, while males had high blood pressure, shrunken livers and enlarged kidneys.

The research team, led by Professor Tom Fleming from the University of Southampton, is at pains to point out that the same thing might not happen in humans.

They believe that the early developing embryo automatically alters its behaviour when it finds itself in an environment where food is scarce.

If nutrition is not plentiful, draining too much from the pregnant mother could even put her survival in jeopardy.

Professor Fleming said: "The objective of the embryo is to be born, reach maturity and pass on its genes by reproducing. Long-term health does not bother it too much."

The association between maternal diet and the long-term health of the child has been noticed before.

High blood pressure and diabetes

Certainly, research has linked poor nutrition with low birth weight children - which can make them susceptible later to strokes, high blood pressure and diabetes.

The window between fertilisation and the implantation of the embryo into the wall of the womb is just four and a half days in rats, and between five and six days in humans.

The rats were all fed a completely normal diet for the remainder of their pregnancies.

Fleming believes that the "nutritional environment" during this period could affect the way genes are expressed during development. He plans further research to investigate this.

He said: "This research is at a very early stage but it suggests that during the very early stages, embryos may be assessing the quality of the mother.

"It remembers this as it grows."

The team also took embryos from protein-starved mother rats and normal mothers, and compared the way cells were dividing in them.

They found that embryos that had endured the few days of restricted diet had fewer cell divisions than might be expected normally at that time.

The research was reported in New Scientist magazine.

Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute, which produced Dolly the cloned sheep, said it was a possibility that human embryos might behave the same way.

He said: "All of these observations should make people who are carrying out IVF, and who are thinking of changing their protocols, think more cautiously."

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01 Apr 00 | Health
Heavy work 'bad for childbirth'
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