Mothers who smoke during pregnancy could increase the likelihood that their child will be obese later in life, a University of Kentucky study has found.
The researchers have identified a potential cellular mechanism that connects a mother’s smoking while pregnant to this increased risk, a UK news release says.
“It has been consistently shown that mothers who smoke during pregnancy confer increased risk of obesity to their baby, but the mechanisms responsible for this increased risk are not well understood,” said Kevin Pearson, lead author of the study, which he said is “a first step towards defining those mechanisms with an eye toward potential interventions in the longer term.”
This research offers possibilities to battle obesity in Kentucky, which ranks 43rd on a negative scale for obesity; 34.3 percent of Kentuckians are obese, compared to 31.3 percent nationally. It ranks second (among the 47 states that provided data) in the percentage of mothers who smoke during pregnancy: 19.5 percent, compared to 7.8 percent nationally, according to America’s Health Rankings.
The study evaluated a total of 65 new mothers, all of which had full-term infants. About half of the new mothers reported smoking during their pregnancy.
Using tissue from the foreskin of the circumcised male infants, the researchers analyzed the cells that carry genetic information from one generation to another. Specifically, they looked at a protein called chemerin that is present in higher levels in the blood of obese people, but had not been measured in infants that had been exposed to cigarette smoking during pregnancy.
“Results showed that chemerin was more prevalent in the skin and isolated cells of infants whose mothers smoked during pregnancy, suggesting that smoking in pregnancy could be leading to changes in the regulation of the genes that play an important role in fat cell development and, by extension, obesity,” says the release.
“Our work demonstrated that expectant mothers who smoke cigarettes during pregnancy induce distinct changes in chemerin gene expression in their offspring,” said Pearson, who is an associate professor in the UK College of Medicine‘s Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences.
The researchers say the next step is to study the cells from the infant’s umbilical cords to see if these findings also hold true in female infants.
It is the hope that this research could “provide a springboard for the development of effective treatments against pediatric and adult obesity in babies born to smokers as well as those exposed to other in utero environmental exposures.”