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Study Finds Association between Placental Function and Metabolic Disease

The findings may lead to new placental biomarkers and interventions to prevent future metabolic diseases

New research published January 7, 2021, in Diabetes demonstrates a clear link between placental function during pregnancy and metabolic diseases in four- to six-year-old children. The findings may help researchers establish placental biomarkers and corresponding interventions to prevent metabolic diseases before birth.

The placenta acts as a barrier between a growing fetus and the mother’s system, performing vital functions, including nutrient transport. Some research shows that how well the placenta performs these functions can have a long-term impact on a person’s health.

In a recent press release, Thomas Jansson, MD, PhD, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and senior author of the study, explained that previous research shows that 50 percent of type 2 diabetes in young adults is due to the intrauterine environment in pregnant women with obesity or gestational diabetes.

To investigate the link between placental function and future metabolic disease, Jansson and colleagues measured the levels of placental nutrient transport proteins, including proteins involved in insulin signaling, inflammation, cortisol metabolism, which is involved in fat metabolism, protein glycosylation, and mitochondrial biogenesis in placental samples from healthy women enrolled in the Healthy Start Study. They then examined the association between the placental proteins and the offspring’s percent fat mass at birth, in infancy, and at four to six years of age in 109 mother–infant pairs. 

The researchers found that placental pathways involved in insulin signaling, cellular energy metabolism, and inflammation were positively associated with metabolic outcomes in healthy children four to six years old, which suggests that nutrient transport by the placenta may contribute to the risk of metabolic disease in children.

"Treating pregnant women is always difficult but the placenta is accessible whereas the fetus is largely inaccessible,” said Jansson in a recent press release. "If we know the placenta is impaired or changed during pregnancy, we can design interventions to modulate that function and decrease the risk to the fetus.”