Asthma – could it be decided before you’re born?


Research done by University of Southampton Scientists has found that the rate of growth of a baby in the womb at certain stages during pregnancy may influence its chances of developing allergies or wheezing.

The study, conducted at Southampton General Hospital and funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and British Lung Foundation, found that babies that develop quickly early on and then slower later on are at higher risk of developing allergies and asthma because of changes in the development of the child’s lungs and immune system. However, a foetus that develops too slowly is likely to wheeze when it contracts common colds, which may be due to narrowed air passages.

A baby’s development in the womb has already been shown to have a large impact on its likelihood to be obese or have heart disease and so this exciting research provides further evidence that changes to the baby’s immune system during pregnancy can influence their susceptibility to common childhood illnesses.

Keith Godfrey, Professor of Epidemiology and Human Development at the University of Southampton and consultant in dermatology at Southampton General hospital said, “Childhood allergies and asthma have become an epidemic in developed countries over the last 50 years, this research shows that in order to combat this we need to understand more about how babies develop in the womb.”

The research found sensitivity to allergens (atopy) in 27% of children who had developed quickly in early pregnancy compared to just 4% who grew slowly in early pregnancy and faster later.

Ian Jarrold of the British Lung Foundation said, “Children’s health can be complicated, so this research is a considerable step forward in understanding why some children are more likely to develop allergies and asthma.

“The most commonly reported long-term illnesses in children and babies are conditions of the respiratory system. Increasing our understanding of childhood lung conditions is vital for developing new ways of diagnosing and treating lung diseases earlier in life.”

The research, published in Thorax and undertaken by University of Southampton scientists at the MRC Epidemiology Unit studied 1500 3-year-old children who were taking part in the Southampton Women’s Survey, which is the largest study of women and their offspring in the UK.

The Survey looked at woman’s diet and lifestyle before, during and after pregnancy and how it affects their babies’ growth and childhood health. Other research done by the study includes work on the link between foetal development and bone density and the susceptibility to osteoporosis, Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) and why some women study more than others, protein metabolism and depression.

It was started in 1998 and includes 12500 women in total, 3000 of which have become pregnant. The Survey is a collaboration between the Medical Research Council and the University of Southampton with different organisations inputting the funding for different studies. It really is medical research on a grand scale and is set to come up with some innovative new ideas on all aspects of childhood and women’s health over the coming years.


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