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September 13, 2013 — In an effort to help reduce a nationwide maternal obesity epidemic, the National Institutes of Health has awarded a five-year, $1.5 million grant to researcher Stephen P. Ford, director of the University of Wyoming’s Center for the Study of Fetal Programming.
“The NIH is funding this research to find ways to stem the progressively increasing occurrence of obesity, now classified as a disease, in the U.S. and around the world,” says Ford, who holds the Rochelle Endowed Chair in the Department of Animal Science. “It is a lot less expensive to prevent this disease than to treat all of the obesity-associated metabolic diseases once an individual becomes obese.”
The NIH reports that 30 percent of women of child-bearing age are overweight or obese at conception and remain so throughout pregnancy. Maternal obesity not only predisposes mothers to serious health problems during pregnancy, but also increases the incidence of chronic metabolic diseases in their children and grandchildren. These include hyperphagia (overeating), insulin resistance, obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
The NIH grant augments Ford’s ongoing research that previously demonstrated that pregnant sheep are a good model for the study of human obesity. Lambs born to obese ewes develop the same metabolic diseases exhibited by human babies, Ford says.
Ford works closely with the center’s co-director, Peter Nathanielsz, a medical doctor and clinical researcher who also directs activities at the Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Research the University of Texas Health Sciences Center, San Antonio. They were the first to report that, as with women, lambs born to lean, normal-weight mothers exhibit an increase in the fat hormone leptin during the first week after birth. This leptin surge sets the appetite-regulating centers in the brain within a normal range, in turn controlling an animal’s appetite throughout life.
In contrast, this leptin surge is absent in both human and sheep offspring born to obese mothers, leading to increased appetite, obesity and associated metabolic diseases in later life.
“The data we are getting in sheep are very similar to what happens to human offspring born to obese or overweight women,” Ford says. “Lambs are born with an increased percentage of body fat; they exhibit increased appetites, develop insulin resistance and obesity, and have an increased incidence of hypertension as adults.”
As previously mentioned, maternal obesity before and during pregnancy results in the lack of an early postnatal leptin surge in daughters and, Ford says, “unfortunately, we recently demonstrated that there is also an absence of the leptin surge in their granddaughters, even if the daughters are not obese and fed only to requirements throughout pregnancy.” Thus, the predisposition to obesity and the metabolic syndrome can cross generations, and may help explain their marked increase over time, Ford adds.
”From ongoing research, we have an idea of what hormones and developmental changes in the fetus might be involved in preventing the surge of leptin from occurring,” Ford says. “It is hoped that these studies will have direct implications for reversing the obesity epidemic that has resulted in marked and escalating health care costs worldwide.”
Nathanielsz works with a large colony of baboons at San Antonio to confirm the sheep results and further demonstrate human relevance. Ford also points out that the research holds promising implications for ongoing research involving livestock.
“Increased understandings of the control of appetite, feed efficiency, body composition and health are of great economic importance to the livestock industry,” he says. “The funding from NIH will allow me the opportunity to make additional important contributions to our understanding of this important area of research.”
“Dr. Ford’s research has attracted attention both nationally and internationally, and resulted in the establishment of collaborations with faculty at UW and other academic institutions both within and outside of the United States,” says Frank Galey, dean of the UW College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Studies conducted at the Center for the Study of Fetal Programing have resulted in the presentation of several hundred abstracts and over 80 publications in high quality refereed scientific journals over this period.”
About the Rochelle Chair
The Rochelle Chair was established in 1992 by university benefactors Curt and Marian Rochelle. The first endowed faculty chair in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, it is intended to attract and retain nationally and internationally recognized scholars and teachers who enhance the university's reputation, research earnings and student recruitment.
Graduate student Kormakur Hognason, left, assists University of Wyoming Animal Science Professor Steve Ford on a project to find ways to reduce obesity in the U.S. and around the world. The research is funded with a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.