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A study presented here may shed some light on why children of obese parents are at a high risk of obesity and metabolic disorders themselves.

Researchers, led by Kristen Boyle, PhD, at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, looked at fetal stem cells and found that in utero, an obese mother may “program” a child’s cells to accumulate extra fat or develop different metabolic patterns that could later lead to insulin resistance.

“We’ve known for awhile that the offspring of mothers who have diabetes during pregnancy have long-term effects on development and metabolism, but more recently these findings have been extended to mothers who are obese,” said Phil Zeitler, MD, PhD, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine at a press conference presenting the findings here.

Zeitler moderated the press conference, but was not associated with the study.

“These results indicate that the in utero environment may in fact program the offspring’s tissues to accumulate excess fat,” he said.

Boyle and colleagues took mesenchymal stem cells from the umbilical cords of babies with normal weight and obese mothers and grew them into fat and muscle cells in the lab. Twelve stem cells from obese mothers and 12 from normal weight mothers were cultured from the infants; all of the cells had similar fat content at baseline.

Before the cells were cultivated and differentiated, those from obese mothers expressed two-fold greater CD13, which has been linked with increased adipogenesis, according to the study. The cells were then cultivated as adipocytes or myocytes for 21 days and protein markers for adipogenesis and myogenesis were measured.

Researchers found that when the cells were differentiated to adipocytes, cells from babies of obese mothers expressed 50% more peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR) protein content than did those from normal weight mothers. And when they were differentiated to myocytes, there were no differences in myosin heavy chain (MHC) content, but cells from babies of obese mothers had a higher lipid content.

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Research Details

  • Research Center: University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus

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