WP biology professor Dr. Elizabeth DuPriest conducts research investigating a connection between low birth weight and obesity.
Medical science has long since shown that environmental factors play an important role in a person’s long-term health. However, according to Warner Pacific biology professor Dr. Elizabeth DuPriest, researchers are finding that the earliest stages of development are critical to determining whether certain adults are at greater risk of developing chronic illnesses, like diabetes or heart disease.
DuPriest will present two abstracts at the Seventh World Congress on Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHD) in September, to be held in Portland. DOHD is a branch of research that looks at environmental factors for clues into chronic diseases that appear much later in life.
“Basically any chronic disease of western society that you can think of has something to do with how you developed,” said DuPriest. “I’m interested in obesity and diabetes, specifically.”
At the conference, DuPriest will discuss research she helped conduct over the last decade in the lab of Dr. Susan P. Bagby at Oregon Health Science University, where DuPriest earned a Ph.D. in integrative biomedical sciences before joining the WP faculty in 2009. One study DuPriest will describe examined the connection between low birth weight and obesity in swine.
The research compared a group of low birth weight piglets whose mother had received a low protein diet during the latter stage of pregnancy and the first two weeks of nursing with a second set of swine that served as a control group. Based on previous research, the lab predicted that the low birth weight piglets would show a greater propensity toward obesity as they aged. This didn’t prove the case. However, the piglets did show significantly lower levels of an important hormone called adiponectin, which adipose (fat) tissue creates. Adiponectin appears to play a role in protecting the body from heart disease and diabetes.
“We’ve shown with these low protein offspring, that even though they are not obese, they are producing low amounts of adiponectin,” said DuPriest. “Maybe this adiponenctin is the link to elevated cardiovascular risk and elevated diabetes risk.”
DuPriest explained that by giving a low protein diet to the test group’s mother, it created a situation in utero where the fetuses weren’t receiving optimal nutrition. In response, the mother’s body rationed the nutrients that existed to emphasize brain and heart development first, at the possible expense of other organs.
“It’s an asymmetric kind of growth restriction, where the brain and heart are protected, and some of those trade offs cause permanent changes in [other] organs,” said DuPriest. “From an adipose tissue perspective, we think there are particular genes that are turned on or off, or the development of adipose cells is increased or decreased. We don’t understand everything about it yet, but what we do understand, somehow during early development, you are programmed to respond to particular post-natal environments.”
DuPriest says the next step in research will involve trying to determine why the adiponectin levels are low. Given the fanfare that genetic research has gotten of late, she says important not to lose sight of environmental and developmental factors.
“A lot of people thought that genes determined who you were and they didn’t want to hear that your environment impacted that, but what we’re finding is that the environment that you grow in influences how those genes work,” said DuPriest. “So the genes are important, but the environment affects those genes.”