Fetal origins reveal factors to prevent chronic disease

November 1, 2019 by Renee Fischer

Krieger Professor Xiaobin Wang explores earliest factors for autism and other conditions

Factors that influence diseases throughout a lifetime and between generations can be found by researching both genetics and environmental factors back to the womb.

Pediatrician and molecular epidemiologist Xiaobin Wang – the Zanvyl Krieger Professor in Children’s Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health – came to this conclusion by recruiting more than 8,600 mother-infant pairs at birth and following them prospectively from birth to age 21.

Director of the Center on the Early Life Origins of Disease, Wang explains this series of studies known as the Boston Birth Cohort. “Our research was motivated by the growing recognition that chronic disease is a result of accumulative risk over the life course, starting with the fetal period. This has born true for several conditions like autism, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.”

Findings have shown that the risk of autism doubled when mothers were obese during pregnancy, and that with mothers who are obese and have diabetes, the odds quadruple, according to Wang.

The cohort has compiled extensive epidemiological and clinical databases of biomarkers that include genetics, epigenetics, and environmental exposures, to advance the field of fetal origins of health and diseases, according to Wang, who is also a professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

“Our goal is to be able to prevent chronic diseases before they strike, beginning at critical developmental windows when interventions may have the greatest lifelong impact,” Wang says.

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