Researchers have been awarded almost £589,000 to investigate the impact of smoking and drinking during pregnancy on the liver of a developing baby.
Some of the health risks of smoking during pregnancy are already well documented but there are concerns that there are other dangers not yet fully understood.
Professor Paul Fowler, Chair in Translational Medical Sciences at the University of Aberdeen, who is leading the Medical Research Council (MRC) funded study said: “Other serious problems are also likely to occur in children exposed to chemicals in their mothers’ cigarette smoke during pregnancy.
“These include an impaired immune system, including an increased risk of asthma, behavioural and cognitive problems and a raised chance of developing obesity, diabetes and heart disease – also known as metabolic syndrome.
“Many of these effects also happen if the mother regularly drinks alcohol while pregnant, even if not to the extent of addiction. There are studies showing that the chance of somebody developing metabolic syndrome is increased if their mother smoked while pregnant but it is not clear if drinking will have an additional effect.”
Professor Fowler has already published studies into the effect smoking has on the fetal liver – his research showed it alters how the liver breaks chemicals down in the body and how it impacts on the normal regulation of the hormone balance in the growing baby.
“This has prompted us to look in more detail at how the developing liver in the foetus may be important for health or disease in the future, in particular with regards to non-alcohol based fatty liver disease, which is associated with obesity,” said Professor Fowler.
He is collaborating on the three-year study with the Professor Peter O’Shaughnessy at the University of Glasgow, Professor John Iredale and Dr David Hay, MRC Centres for Inflammation and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and Professor Marilyn Huestis and Sarah Himes at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Baltimore. Drs Susan Fairley, Pan Filis and Alex Douglas complete the Aberdeen team.
“Adult health is partly programmed by what happened during foetal development in the womb. We hope that this new study will help us understand how maternal smoking and drinking may increase liver maldevelopment and contribute to metabolic syndrome,” added Professor Fowler.
“Our long term hope is to find biomarkers that may pick out newborns who have been exposed to their mother’s tobacco and alcohol use; allowing midwives, obstetricians and GPs to give advice and support to women designed to reduce the likelihood of their children developing metabolic syndrome.”