In utero environment and risk of childhood diseases

22 April 2010

The prevalence of certain childhood diseases such as asthma, eczema and cancers has seen a worldwide increase in recent decades. However, the underlying cause of this increase is as yet unknown, and could be due to genetic and/or environmental factors. The NewGeneris project was launched in 2006 to investigate the effects of prenatal and early-life exposure to genotoxic chemicals (chemicals causing damage to genetic material) present in food and the environment in the development of childhood cancers and immune disorders.  The project is coordinated by Maastricht University and consists of 25 partners from 16 European countries, who will contribute data on prenatal exposures and biomarkers. Information on biomarkers will be gained from samples of maternal and umbilical cord blood collected from groups of mother-child pairs and stored in biobanks in different European regions. This allows the researchers to analyse a birth mega-cohort with subjects coming from regions with a wide diversity of environmental conditions and dietary and lifestyle habits. The project is approaching its target to gather gene-rate data from around 1000 mothers and their infants (see Cordis news).

Along with collecting biological samples, the project also collects information on the dietary exposures of the mother, father and child using questionnaires. It is also involved in experimental studies to identify and validate new biomarkers. In addition, the project is also assessing the effects of certain chemicals on sperm, transplacental transport and metabolism. It is hoped that an understanding of in utero exposures to chemicals as a result of maternal diet will lead to identification of health risks for newborn children and inform appropriate policy decisions on food and environmental safety.

Comment: The impact of maternal health on child health has been well documented in relation to conditions such as neural tube defects (see previous news) and smoking (see previous news). However, conclusive evidence between environmental exposure to certain chemicals and risk of childhood diseases has been lacking for other childhood illnesses. Ventures such as NewGeneris could help improve our understanding of environmental risk factors thereby allowing for policy development in this area. This may be particularly relevant in low and middle-income countries where environmental factors may contribute to the burden of congenital anomalies (see previous news). The PHG Foundation is working to enable individual low and middle-income countries and regions to deliver better care and help reduce the prevalence and impact of birth defects, by producing tools to help them to assess local health needs and develop simple, cost-effective health services (see our work).

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