A high-fat diet and obesity during pregnancy compromise the blood-forming, or hematopoietic, stem cell system in the fetal liver responsible for creating and sustaining lifelong blood and immune system function, scientists reported this week.
The life-long burden of a western-style diet on the heart and circulatory system have long been appreciated. However, prior to this study, no one had considered whether the developing blood stem cells might be similarly vulnerable to prenatal high-fat diet and/or maternal obesity. The findings of the new research are published in the journal Molecular Metabolism.
“Our results offer a model for testing whether the effects of a high-fat diet and obesity can be repaired through dietary intervention, a key question when extrapolating this data to human populations,” said Dr. Daniel L. Marks, M.D., Ph.D., co-investigator and professor of pediatric endocrinology in the OHSU School of Medicine and Papé Family Pediatric Research Institute at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Oregon.
Several years ago, Dr. Marks and colleagues developed a mouse model that closely mimics the high-fat, high-simple-sugar diet currently consumed by many young women of childbearing age. Their subsequent research demonstrated that maternal overnutrition in mice significantly reduced the size of the fetal liver.
Armed with this information, Dr. Marks partnered with another stem cell expert, Dr. Peter Kurre, M.D., co-investigator on the current study and professor of pediatric oncology in the OHSU School of Medicine and the Papé Family Pediatric Research Institute at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.
Together, they discovered that the complex changes that occur as a result of maternal high-fat diet and obesity put significant constraints on the growth and expansion of blood stem cells in the fetal liver, which ultimately compromises the developing immune system.
“In light of the spreading western-style, high-fat diet and accompanying obesity epidemic, this study highlights the need to better understand the previous unrecognized susceptibility of the stem and progenitor cell system,” Kurre said. “These findings may provide broad context for the rise in immune disease and allergic disposition in children.”
Maternal overweight and obesity can also cause pregnancy complications such as gestational diabetes, hypertension and preeclampsia, and can negatively affect fetal growth. In a study published earlier this month, researchers found that maternal obesity is associated with a significantly increased risk of infant death. According to the results, obese pregnant women had more than twice the risk of infant death than their healthy-weight counterparts.
Research also shows that the impact of maternal obesity extends beyond intrauterine and neonatal life to childhood, adolescence and adulthood.